It’s up to the majority

Svenska kulturfonden (Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland) annually organises an international seminar on language minority issues. This year’s seminar took place on 13 November 2012 in Brussels and the focus was on the linguistic majority: “It is important that the members of society representing the linguistic majority not only understand the position of the minority but also act accordingly” (a quote from the seminar programme). The keynote speaker at the seminar was Martti Ahtisaari, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former president of Finland. In this article, I will concentrate on the speakers who dealt with Swedish as minority language in Finland.

Martti Ahtisaari, who many remember from resolving conflicts in different corners of the world, such as Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Central Asia, is also working on minority language issues. In his peace mediating work, respect and consideration for local (minority) languages plays a major part. In 2010 he was nominated chairman of the action plan to strengthen the national languages in Finland. He reminded us of the fact that although only 5.4 % of Finland’s population have Swedish as their mother tongue, legally they are not a minority because according to the constitution they have the right to use their mother tongue everywhere. However, even though their rights are in many ways respected, there are problems in the implementation of legislation, particularly in public services, such as health care and the court of law. That’s why a systematically implemented action plan is needed, as well as concrete tools to put it into action. There is an economic cost of maintaining minority languages, so naturally the country in question will have to be willing and able to invest in it. Ahtisaari pointed out that even if each country has a different language situation, we can still draw comparisons between minority languages in different countries and learn from each other. “We need more egalitarian policies. Europe needs an Index of Good Governance, similar to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. We should perhaps invite people to the Nordic countries to see what we’re doing. Encouragement is, however, always better than naming and shaming.” He also said that many policies can be strengthened from the grass root level: Why do Swedish speaking Finns often switch to Finnish when a Finnish speaker joins the conversation? Defend your own language!

We were also introduced best practices in the public sector. One of them was the case of bilingual health care in Finland, which was presented by Aki Lindén, Director at Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa. He introduced the language programme of the district, which uses language ambassadors, grants to personnel who use Swedish at work and language courses to personnel. He said they were receiving good feedback so far but one of the problems is to find doctors to match patients in highly specialized areas.

There was also an example from Finland among the best practices from the private sector. It concerned Swedish service in Finland. Assistant Professor Jonas Holmqvist from Bordeaux Management School enlightened us with examples which go to show that many international companies which are multilingual elsewhere are monolingual in Finland. According to him, Swedish speaking Finns should demand service in Swedish themselves. In Finland political considerations don’t play a major role unlike in Belgium, for example, which means that companies don’t lose customers even if they don’t use minority languages.

Again, it all boils down to individual actions, combined with community which engages its citizens; good schooling where ideologies are exchanged; political goodwill and sometimes some good fortune, too. What was most remarkable though was the fact that everyone seemed to agree that what happens on the ground is most important, after all. So, start acting for minority languages today!

New Multilingual Synopsis of the European Training Thesaurus

We have just heard about this exciting new tool for training professionals and wanted to share it with you. This article originally appeared in Europa news on languages.

New Multilingual Synopsis of the European Training Thesaurus – Are you a training professional? A new multilingual toolkit for you.

The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) has recently published the new Multilingual Synopsis of the European Training Thesaurus for all those working in education, training and employment.

The publication, which is available online, is a selection of 1,207 terms and concepts which appear frequently in literature related to European vocational education and training. The tool, which is the basis for the complete online thesaurus CEDEFOP is currently preparing, allows for quick navigation by language, term and topic.

The terms/concepts cover several topics such as lifelong learning, vocational education and training policy, assessment and certification of learning outcomes, recognition of certificates and diplomas. Each term is presented in 11 languages: Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Swedish.

To download the thesaurus, click here.

Language mixing in youth language use – an exception or a rule?

A couple of weeks ago I overheard an interesting conversation while sitting in the park. Afterwards, I started to wonder if what I heard was just a one off example of special kind of language use or nothing special these days, and that’s when I decided to discuss the matter here in the hope of getting some comments from our readers!

This is what happened: There were three girls speaking in English (well, that’s what I first thought). They didn’t have a strong accent and they could’ve well been foreign (i.e. not Belgian) as that park is often frequented by foreigners. After a while I realised that they were speaking in Dutch after all, with a Flemish accent. I listened further and thought I heard English again. Then I thought one of them must be English-speaking while the rest are Dutch-speaking. They kept talking and then I got it: They spoke mostly in Dutch but sometimes, out of the blue, they said something in English. When one said a sentence in English, the others usually answered in English, too, and at some point they switched back to Dutch. An extract of the conversation was something like this:

“Toen ik thuis zat, weet je wat ik plots zag?”

”No, tell me.”

”A huge spider, it was like this big!”

”Oh my god, what did you do?”

”I just looked at it and screamed!”

”Ik zou het niet aankunnen – zo groot!”

”Het was vreselijk, hoor.”

”I can totally believe it.”

I was so surprised to hear the girls speak like this that I wanted to investigate the subject a bit further. I know I mix languages myself, too but I thought it was just because we’re a multilingual family and are used to speaking in many languages. I came across an interesting research entitled National survey on the English language in Finland: Uses, meanings and attitudes, 2011, which found that this language mixing (or, code switching), and in particular, using English alongside with your mother tongue is quite a common feature also in Finland – especially among youth. What startled me is that according to the survey, most people (76.4%) don’t even realise they’re mixing languages! What’s more, this mixing also occurs in writing, which puzzles me even more, in the sense that when you write, you normally take more time to consider what you say whereas speech is more instantaneous and somehow that makes it more fitting for language mixing. Then again, come to think of it, I might stick in a sentence in English myself when writing an email in another language.

According to the article ”[mixing] takes place especially in everyday informal speech situations and in occupational language use” and “Mixing English and the mother tongue was more common in cities than elsewhere”. Both of these findings seem logical.

There’s also the question of mixing words or entire sentences; yet another thing is to use words that have derived from English but have become part of the national language, be it officially or unofficially, such as in this case (see point 36 “English alongside the mother tongue” please). In my experience, this seems to be quite a common kind of usage of English words in another language. I hear it often and use words like this myself; in fact, I don’t consider words like ‘organisoida’ or ‘kompromissi’ as English words anymore.

Still, I’m left to wonder: If this kind of mixing is common language use these days, how common is the kind of use I overheard in the park, in which entire English sentences where used in otherwise Dutch conversation? And, if people use another language in their speech/writing to this extent, can they still be regarded as monolinguals? Where do we draw the line – or, do we even have to draw a line?

Are bilinguals smarter than the rest?

Lately there has been an increasing amount of articles written on the subject of bilingualism. Some argue that people brought up bilingual are smarter than the rest of us. Others tell tales of hardship caused by loss of identity, loss of belonging, loss of friends. According to a recent article written by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee for The New York Times, there is enough evidence to show that

Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.

It’s all down to interference:

– – in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other.

This was previously considered a hindrance but in fact, it makes the mind work harder and thus strengthens its cognitive muscles. The bilingual brain actually improves the brain’s “executive function” which directs things like problem solving and planning. One of the processes this influences is remembering things.

According to the article, the main difference between bilinguals and monolinguals is that they have a “heightened ability to monitor their environment”:

Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.

This monitoring is certainly visible in our 2-year-old daughter’s everyday life. She constantly switches between her two languages, Finnish and Dutch, while talking to people. This is an extract of a conversation which took place recently:

Me: “Sanopa papalle, että kahvi on valmista. Nyt voi tulla syömään aamupalaa.”

She: “Papa, koffie klaar! Eten.”

Also, she switches between languages even within a sentence if, for example, she happens to hear her father come in:

She: “Kohta pyörällä… buiten fietsen.”

I often wonder how much she understands of the situation she’s in, that is, that she speaks two languages whereas many other people around her don’t. It does seem that she recognises the fact and says things like “papa zegt ‘baby’, äiti sanoo ‘vauva’”. She has also learned to know which relatives and friends speak which language.

When it comes to bilinguals having a good memory, I must say that our daughter seems to have an incredibly good one. When she sees a book she hasn’t seen in months, she instantly remembers what it’s about. Or, when she sees a car that resembles her Finnish grandparents’ car she’s seen only a few times in her lifetime, she always shouts “mummi pappa auto!” Also, she seems to remember everyone’s names – even if she’s only seen them in a photo – and she can connect things like berries with her Finnish grandparents.

I could be inclined to say that our daughter is a good example in proving the claims in Bhattacharjee’s article right. On the other hand, I haven’t done many comparisons, so it might as well be that this is completely normal behaviour of a two-year-old, or that this is just how she is and has nothing to do with her being bilingual. Somehow I do think though, that this constant increased brain activity makes bilinguals more active, more alert. Whether this is always a good thing, I don’t know. Our daughter seems to have her head full of things constantly and cannot sleep easily or talks in her sleep – in multiple languages. So maybe this constant language switching and monitoring your environment has such a profound effect that it can even cause restlessness. Then again, maybe it’s just how she is. Whatever the case, I think I wouldn’t go out of my way to make my child bi- or plurilingual, but if it’s possible and comes naturally (like in the case of parents with a different mother tongue), I think it’s certainly worth it.

Languages with no future better for the future?

According to a recent article Yale researcher Keith Chen is “currently working on a paper in which he examines the effect of future tense in different cultures’ future-oriented behavior.” He distinguishes between the so-called strong future time reference (FTR) languages, like English, which according to his preliminary research are “more likely to make poor decisions in terms of planning for the future resulting in higher rates of obesity, debt, smoking, drinking, and so forth” and other, weak FTR languages, which would then have the opposite effect on the future.  Although the research paper has not been finished yet and there has been criticism, such as the difficulty to categorize languages as strong or weak FTR, I thought this a good opportunity to look at a language with no future tense since the sheer idea of it often puzzles people.

My mother tongue Finnish does not have an actual future tense. We use the present tense also for future and words like kohta (soon) or huomenna (tomorrow) or ensi vuonna (next year) to mark the future. The so-called tulla-futuuri (tulla=will be) is however becoming (!) more and more common. It’s not (yet) considered acceptable and many people are very much against it but it seems that it’s winning popularity and might find its way into the Finnish language norms, whether we like it or not. One of the reasons why this form has been frowned upon is because its origins are in the Swedish language’s kommer att construction. However, as Jääskeläinen points out in her article, also the newer tenses in Finnish, i.e. perfect and past perfect tenses have come from the West into the Finnish language. Some people argue that the tulla-futuuri is even necessary in some cases and would hinder the understanding of the sentence if it wasn’t used. The following examples are taken from translation company Translatum’s language help section (with my translations into English):

Virtanen tulee olemaan riemuissaan valinnastaan. (Virtanen will be happy if he’s chosen.)

Virtanen on riemuissaan valinnastaan. (Virtanen is happy because he’s chosen.)

In the above examples, it is indeed true that the addition or elimination of the tulla structure changes the meaning of the rest of the sentence, too. So sometimes it seems legitimate to use it. Of course you could argue that it’s not necessary even here as you could explain the phrase in another way, too, such as by adding a subordinate clause like “if he’s chosen” at the end, resulting in:

Virtanen on riemuissaan, jos hänet valitaan.*

To go back to the article about the future tense’s effect on the future, does it actually imply that nations like Finland, with no clear future tense, will have less obesity, debt, smokers, drinkers and so forth? Well, I think many people associate Finland with heavy drinking but it looks like we are by far not the only Europeans binge drinking. We are also not on the top of the list when it comes to obesity (we learned something in the 1970s) nor do we have the most public debt to GDP ratio. We do like to plan and I think are at times good at foreseeing the future so we don’t fall into a complete and utter crisis. Then again, it’s not that long ago that Finland was in deep recession (early 1990s). So could a language’s strong or weak future tense indeed have some effect on the country’s future? I think it’s certainly an intriguing research but we need to know more to make better conclusions. However, it’s always good to stop and think how languages are built, how different structures come about and just how much is borrowed or stolen from other languages. That’s how we get a bigger picture of the things and can understand the language as well as the culture and the nation better. And that’s really the ultimate goal we strive for, isn’t it?

(*I realise that the Finnish language examples might need more explanation to non-Finnish speakers – such as why I translated different clauses in the same way, both with ‘jos hänet valitaan’ – but this goes a bit beyond the point of this article. Apologies for a possible confusion!)

Subtitler – between a rock and a hard place

Subtitling is a wonderful and challenging job. Having worked as a subtitler for TV series and films, I’ve become familiar with a number of challenges subtitlers are faced with. In this post, I’ll discuss some of those challenges.

Subtitling is common in countries where the population is quite small, such as the Nordic Countries, whereas countries like Italy and Germany tend to turn to dubbing. Although dubbing is more expensive and could thus be considered “better” than subtitling, I think subtitling has many advantages. One of these is definitely the fact that this way you can learn languages: You hear the original language and can pick up phrases and intonations from that language, but you can also brush up your own mother tongue skills. The quality of subtitling needs to be high because people learn language from the subtitles. The subtitler needs to know the culture and language of both the original and the target country inside out. They also need to be good at searching information as many documentaries or films deal with subjects that have very specialised vocabulary. This is definitely also a positive side of the job: You learn about things you never thought existed in some cases (let alone get to watch series like Mad Men or films like I Vitelloni as part of your job)!

The text has to come up on the screen exactly the same time as something is said, and can only stay on the screen a few seconds. Sometimes it’s difficult to divide the subtitles and what’s more, sometimes it’s very challenging to be able to write down what’s said on the screen on just that subtitle, not the previous or the next. The word order of two different languages is not always the same and this can cause confusion especially to those viewers who speak both languages or want to try and learn the language while watching.

Viewers often get upset if they think not every word has been translated, or at least not the same way as in the original. Two common areas of discussion are humour and swear words.  Humour can of course be very culture specific and can sometimes require a completely different strategy than just sticking to the original which might not mean anything to the viewers. As for myself, when it comes to jokes, I’m often so curious that I want to understand both the original and the translated version properly and have the annoying habit of rewinding the scene back if watching a DVD.

It is said that the written word has a stronger impact than the spoken word. Thus hearing someone swear on the TV might go almost unnoticed at times but seeing the actual words written down on the screen can create an unnecessarily strong impact. Written word is also somehow more final, and that’s why we are more careful of what we write down than what we say. What’s more, usually we want to convey the feeling, the atmosphere of a certain scene, which can sometimes be better conveyed through a slightly different choice of words, which doesn’t draw unnecessary attention to the words themselves but instead to what they mean. In some cases it is, of course, best if not necessary to translate the words literally. Another fact that often determines the choice of words is the length: Only thirty some characters fit in the two lines reserved for subtitles. This means that things must be shortened quite a bit. When I translated an Italian film, it sometimes felt I couldn’t keep up because the characters were talking a lot and in very long sentences. I can imagine the opposite could be said of someone translating Kaurismäki’s film from Finnish. That could at first sight seem like an easy task but might turn out everything but.

It feels like I’ve just about scratched the surface and haven’t even started to talk about slang, dialects and many other issues that come up when subtitling. I hope I have at least given some food for thought!

Kaksikielisyys on iso ilo

Tyttäremme sai syntyessään suuren lahjan: kaksikielisyyden. Koska hänen äitinsä on suomenkielinen ja isänsä hollanninkielinen, hän sai lahjaksi suomen ja hollannin. Meille oli jo alusta asti selvää, että minä puhun hänelle suomea, mieheni hollantia. Olenkin ollut yllättynyt siitä, kuinka moni tuntuu kysyvän tästä ja jopa ihmettelevän asiaa, etenkin täällä Belgiassa: “Siis puhutko sinä hänelle suomea, vaikka asut Belgiassa? Oho.” Suoraan sanottuna minulle ei tulisi mieleenikään puhua lapselleni esimerkiksi englantia tai hollantia. Miksi tekisin niin? Mielestäni kaikkien lasten olisi hyvä puhua molempien vanhempiensa äidinkieltä ja toisekseen, mielestäni vanhempien on parasta puhua lapselleen omaa äidinkieltään, jotta nämä oppivat kieltä mahdollisimman virheettömästi ja oikein. Olen ymmärtänyt, että sillä ei ole niinkään suurta merkitystä, mitä kieltä vanhemmat puhuvat keskenään. Me olemme kuitenkin lapsemme syntymän jälkeen yrittäneet minimoida englannin ja italian ja keskittyä hollantiin ja suomeen myös keskinäisessä kanssakäymisessämme. Uskon, että tämä tekee hyvää sekä tyttäremme että meidän kielitaidollemme. Toki se voi tehdä hallaa italian ja englannin kielen taidoillemme, mutta koska meistä kumpikaan ei puhu näitä äidinkielenään, on tärkeämpi, että lapsemme ainakin alussa keskittyy kahteen kieleen ja oppii ne hyvin. Mehän voimme opiskella muita kieliä myöhemmin tai siinä sivussa; kuten kaikki tietävät, pienten lasten vanhemmilla on rutosti vapaa-aikaa.

Lapsemme puhuu tällä hetkellä molempia kieliä vähän sekaisin, mutta mielenkiintoista on, että vaikka asumme Belgiassa, hän puhuu ja ymmärtää suomea huomattavasti paremmin kuin hollantia/flaamia. Tarkemmin ajatellen tähän on kuitenkin aika monta järkisyytä. Ensinnäkin minä olen ollut tyttäremme ensisijainen hoitaja siinä mielessä, että hoidin häntä kotona, kunnes palasin töihin osa-aikaisesti ja hän aloitti päiväkodin. Kotona puhun hänelle aina suomea, luen suomenkielisiä kirjoja, kuuntelemme etupäässä suomenkielistä (lasten-)musiikkia, soitan pianoa ja laulan pääasiassa suomenkielisiä lauluja ja ylipäänsäkin vietän hänen kanssaan paljon aikaa.

Myös sosiaaliset suhteet vaikuttavat tunnetusti kielten oppimiseen. Asuinmaa tai kontaktien määrä ei kuitenkaan automaattisesti määrää vahvempaa kieltä. Tyttäremme käy osa-aikaisesti hollanninkielisessä päiväkodissa, missä hän oppii hollantia. Hänen isänsä lisäksi hän tapaa täällä muita sukulaisia ja ystäviä, jotka puhuvat hollantia. Minä tapaan myös säännöllisesti suomenkielisiä ystäviäni sekä Belgiassa että Suomessa. Useimmilla heistä on myös lapsia, joten lapsemme pääsevät leikkimään yhdessä. Lasten ollessa pienempiä järjestimme toisinaan myös jonkinasteisia musiikkileikkikouluja, joissa soitimme tai ainakin lauloimme yhdessä – suomeksi. Lisäksi Skypen kautta voimme olla yhteydessä suomalaisiin sukulaisiin ja ystäviin. Epäilen, että viimeistään koulun alkaessa kielten paikat vaihtuvat ja hollannista tulee tyttäremme vahvempi kieli, mutta sitä suuremmalla syyllä hänen onkin hyvä oppia mahdollisimman paljon suomea nyt. Hän ei myöskään tällä hetkellä vielä seuraa mediaa, ja uskon, että vanhempana silläkin on varmasti vaikutuksensa. Toki lehtiä, tv:tä ja radiotakin voi seurata usealla kielellä.

Minä odotan mielenkiinnolla, koska tyttäremme suomen kielen taito yltää hänen isänsä suomen kielen taidon tasolle. Lapsemme varmasti innostaa meitäkin opettelemaan toinen toisemme äidinkieltä paremmin. Olen kuullut, että kriisejäkin saattaa olla luvassa: lapsi saattaa esimerkiksi kieltäytyä puhumasta toista kieltä, vaikka osaisikin sitä. Tätä on kuitenkin turha miettiä nyt, kun voimme vielä toistaiseksi nauttia lapsemme uusista ja hauskoista oivalluksista molemmilla kielillä.

To be continued…