You learn a language by speaking it
When Riina Link moved from Estonia to Finland five years ago, she did not know any Finnish. ‘When I went into a store, all I could say was “thanks” and “bye” and I didn’t understand many product labels,’ she now reminisces in fluent Finnish.
It took a long time for Riina Link to find a job after she moved to Finland because she did not know the language. It was also difficult to deal with the authorities, because they did not always understand English, which Link tried to use to communicate.
Three years ago, Link finally found a job as a hotel housekeeper and was soon promoted to a position as a housekeeping service supervisor. Her employer was Servisole, which is currently owned by RTK-Palvelu, and she worked at Hotel Haven in Helsinki city centre.
"At first, I was afraid to take the service supervisor’s job – specifically because of the language problems. But my husband, who had been living in Finland for longer, said that you will never learn the language if you don’t take the job. It was difficult at first though, because I didn’t understand everything", Link explains.
For instance, she remembers getting an odd-sounding phone call, which is still kept alive by her co-workers’ banter:
"I was asked to take ten hangers to room 607. I understood that I needed to get ten ID cards and had no idea how to make that happen", Link marvels at her mix-up between the Finnish colloquial words for ‘hanger’ (henkari) and ‘identity card’(henkkari).
Gradually, her language skills improved as she kept on speaking with her Finnish co-workers every day.
"Google Translate was kept busy."
When her employer offered her a chance to take a Finnish language course, Riina Link grabbed the opportunity. The course lasted just under a year and she spent two hours per week studying vocabulary relevant to the cleaning sector, in particular.
RTK-Palvelu is also currently running a Finnish language course organized in cooperation with Amiedu Vocational Training Centre for Adults, which is attended by just over 20 employees. According to RTK’s HR Manager, Jan Haart, providing support for studies reduces personnel turnover, while also promoting occupational safety, for example, and even work efficiency. Furthermore, language proficiency enables access to vocational studies, which the employer has also supported.
It is definitely not the case that all employers with immigrant employees on the payroll provide support for language studies – let alone actually organizing courses. However, courses could benefit both parties, so you may want to run the idea past your boss. After all, immigrants who are already employed are not entitled to language training organized by employment authorities to promote social integration.
"I learnt a lot more on the course about things such as inflection and standard written Finnish, which I didn’t really know before. I used to be a bit afraid to speak Finnish before, because I thought I was using the wrong words, but the course gave me more confidence to use the language", Link describes her experience.
Link also praises her teacher, who had the patience to explain the differences between Finnish and Estonian.
Since the course, her language skills have improved further at work. There are fewer misunderstandings than at the beginning, while communication with Finnish co-workers is easier. Since instructions for housekeepers are also in Finnish, it is important for everyone to understand work-related terms.
"It’s now easy for me to ask at a store where they keep certain types of bags, for example," says Link, smiling.
"Sometimes I may also use Finnish words at home with my husband, if a certain word sounds better in Finnish."
Riina Link’s tips: How to learn Finnish
1 Starting out in a new country is always hard. My best advice is to start studying the language soon if you want to work here. If your employer does not offer language courses, PAM does, among others. You can apply for those. (The next PAM course starts in the Helsinki-Uusimaa region in the autumn. You can apply via PAM’s website or Helsinki Regional Office. Courses are also available at adult education centres and folk high schools, for example.)
2 Use the language at work. Even if there is just one Finn present, it’s a good idea for everyone to speak Finnish with each other. That’s how you learn the language.
3 If there is something that you do not understand, ask right away – both at work and in a language class.