I still remember when I had my first discussion in a foreign language.
I was on a bus heading to school and sat next to a creature that was something more exotic than anything else I had seen in my life – a real Kiwi, a New Zealander.
She had joined our school as an exchange student. We normally learn American English in Finland so no one really understood much of what she said but everyone was curious.
Well, there we were sitting next to each other and after a long quiet pause she decided to strike up a conversation by asking what I had been up to during the weekend. I was trying to mumble something about fever, but ended up saying something incomprehensible about how I was feeling so very hot for my two free days.
The discussion was a complete flop but it was still probably the most exciting thing from my school period.
Here on Monocle 24 we are constantly in touch with potential interviewees around the world – this gives you quite a good idea of what the general language skill level around the world is.
Native English speakers are often not very good with foreign languages – a survey a few years ago found that Brits speak on average seven words of a foreign language.
But to be honest, the Nordic countries are not that amazing when we start talking in languages other than English – in Finland learning Swedish is often referred to as pakkoruotsi – “forced Swedish” – that according to its critics, nobody really needs.
Besides obvious communicational skills, there are other bonuses for speaking a foreign language. Supposedly it is good for your brain. I think what is even more important than perhaps postponing your Alzheimer’s, is what speaking another language does for the way you view the world. It’s a horrible cliché but so true – learning a language is not just about learning new words, it is also about learning a culture.
Therefore I think that if a nation makes its youngest learn the words and habits of a foreign nation, that is something very considerate. When a nation doesn’t value the languages of its partners on a global scale it is being ignorant. That’s why I often hope countries with the worst records for language skills would lower the age for when the kids start learning. It’s a nice gesture towards the outside world.
Coming from Finland, and knowing the sometimes inward-looking attitude towards many issues outside of Helsinki, I have thought about what could change this.
If I could choose, Finnish young men would be sent abroad for a year instead of doing the national service that they so often seem to dislike – this would definitely create more open-minded views of the world, and a lot of inspiration.
And what’s the worst that could happen? You end up spending a miserable year in the south of France? Things could be worse.