Couple of weeks ago I participated a scientific symposium in Münster, a city that has been selected as one of the best cities to live and the best bicycling city in Germany. I had made a very late hotel booking and ended up living in a hotel 8 km outside the city center. Hotel rented bikes so I decided to try out how it is to bicycle in Münster. I took a small route by the channel “Kanalen promenaden” and on top of the fresh air and beautiful sights I got some exercise, much needed after sitting in the planes and trains!
In the city I left the bike and started to walk around. After couple of hours I had completely forgotten where I left my bike. As they say, getting lost is the best way to learn to know the city and the people… It is for a long time since I have really used German language, but it was sure helpful when talking with the locals and finally finding my bicycle! For my surprise also young people seemed to be much more comfortable with German than with English. My broken German was not a problem, but even young people preferred speaking German.
When in China I have had the luxury of working with local people that has made work easy.Recently I started a keynote speech to local academics and business people by saying “Nihao”. People clapped their hands and I was a bit embarrassed – but sometimes just a few words of the local language can make a big difference!
Some of the languages that I have learned have become very rusty, as most of my work is in English and Finnish. Still, when in Spain I have this urge to talk with locals and also enjoy being able to read the signs, local newspapers etc. When in France I also use all my 20 French words (many of which may be Spanish), but that helps, too :)
This spring Veli-Matti Virolainen and I met Academics from Moscow Academy of Sciences who came to LUT to give a prestigious prize in physics to Professor Erkki Lähteenranta. I have learned some Russian in age of 13-15, but have forgotten it so completely that I cannot read the essays I have written! When listening to Russian presentations and feeling their eagerness and goodwill, I really would have wanted to be able to speak some Russian just to show how I appreciated their visit and the prize given. Well, after this Veli-Matti and I decided to start learning Russian. I don’t expect to be fluent, but just to be able to socialize with the locals and know my way in Russia.
Swedish is pretty rusty, too. I used to use it when working with entrepreneurs in the Western part of Finland, but have not needed it in Eastern Finland. Tomorrow I will participate the Nordic Rectors’ meeting in Lund, so yesterday I brushed up my Swedish by listening to Swedish TV channel and a program on gardening. Gardening is always a safe topic to start new cross-cultural relationships J
So you see that my level of ambition with languages is not very high. However, I believe we should worry much less if we cannot speak the languages perfectly, it is much more important to be understood and show the appreciation for people and culture.
Last but not least. I think it is very important for our international students to learn Finnish. Yes, Finnish a very small language but there are many opportunities for international experts knowing Finnish language. A combination of Finnish and Russian would be even better! Even if Finnish people know English and it is easy to get by, Finns really appreciate if someone invests in learning Finnish. From what I have learned when talking about this issue with our former international students and people in business, small talk in Finnish around coffee tables and saunas could carry you quite far! If you are really ambitious, learn so much Finnish that you can write your work application and do a work interview in Finnish! I believe it would be easier to find traineeships, master thesis jobs and work, when knowing some Finnish. Currently we offer some Finnish courses for foreigners at the university, but I hope we can offer some more Finnish courses in the near future. In the meanwhile, enjoy the Finnish summer and people at their best!
Vice-rector for international affairs
Ps. If you want to follow what I am up to, you can find me in Twitter: KirsimarjaB