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Back to You spik inglish

Alberto Fernández, Professor, IESE, University of Navarra

You spik inglish

Wed, 28 Jul 2010 11:59:47 +0000 Published in ABC (Catalonia)

I have been in Helsinki for a few days of vacation. Finland is a wonderful country in summer with almost two hundred thousand islands and as many lakes, with water and green everywhere. Nature in its purest form.

Also, and this is the subject of my article, everyone speaks English. Our friends had no problem inviting other Finns; we all spoke English. They would invite us to other houses and exactly the same thing. The cashiers in the supermarkets speak English. Anybody you stop on the street speaks English. A foreigner - if he speaks English - has no problem understanding and being understood in Helsinki.

Precisely the opposite experience happened to me in St. Petersburg. Another majestic and wonderful city. Not a trace of English. Not even in the menu of a McDonalds. Everything written in Cyrillic. The person who served us did not even understand "water". Luckily another person who was behind me in the queue ended up helping me to translate, much to the happiness of my children.

In Finnish schools they do not have more hours of English than in Spain, but my friends tell me that the core topic is that they do not translate the movies into Finnish but give them in the original version with subtitles. And parents are aware that their children's chances depend on having a language that allows them to communicate with the rest of the world (theirs is not easy). My impression is that most Russians in St. Petersburg didn't care if the tourists understood them or not.
And here, are we more like Finland or Russia? I remember that the general director of a business told me that they had to wait for their international expansion until their commercial director who did not speak English retired in two years; and the general director in Spain of another business who with a brilliant degree program had not been able to promote because he did not know English. Also to the general director of a Catalan business that preferred not to invite its Madrid salesperson to meetings so that they would be in Catalan.

We are far behind Finland in terms of our ability to communicate with the rest of the world because we do not speak English well, the language which, like it or not, is the one that allows us to do so. And if we learn other languages, so much the better. On this vacation I met a Frenchman married to a Finnish woman. They live in Oslo and previously in Vienna. Their children speak English, French, Finnish, German and Norwegian. With Chinese and Spanish they could go almost anywhere in the world.

The Finns, besides speaking English very well, take care of their own language. There are just over five million of them, but they tell me that they are not afraid that it will disappear. They learn it in their schools. They study, read and communicate in Finnish. The diversity of languages is a great asset that allows us, among other things, to enjoy learning them and to dream in our own language. Finland's experience shows that it is perfectly compatible to take care of one's own language with learning others and that the way is not to force others to communicate with you in your country by speaking your language but to educate your own people to speak and write as many languages as possible.

I wish those of you who have them "onnelinen loma", that is, a happy vacation.