Why study so many foreign languages? -No reason

Translation of Ilkka Malmberg’s column in Helsingin Sanomat on May 4, 2014: Ruotsi on kiva mutta hyödytön kieli

I have studied many, many languages. Now I realize that I should have learned only one. English.

http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/all on May 18, 2014

Data from Web Technology Surveys on May 18, 2014.

I love languages. Throughout my life I have been studying one language or another. Thousands of hours worth.

I remain fluent only in Finnish. I don’t have what you call a knack for learning languages. I am envious of all my bi- or trilingual friends who can switch between languages in midsentence. My choices in school were towards learning languages. Swedish and German learning started in early elementary grades. French and English came in the middle school.

There a lot of educated Finns who can talk in three or four languages. This is often a curiosity abroad. That’s when you feel patriotic pride for the Finnish educational system.

The properly humble way to reply to the praise is that since Finnish is spoken by so few we must learn languages spoken more widely.


It wasn’t hard to find motivation for studying languages in the world I grew up in. Languages were the key to the world. French was the language of arts, diplomacy, gastronomy, cycling and love – and even the language of international mail. Knowing French had a status of sophistication.

German, on the other hand, was the language of technology, trade, ski jumping, poetry and philosophy. The motivation of the girls in my class, however, at least a little, based on the nice German boys who visited our town as tourists during summer. Knowledge of Swedish was required when you took a summer job in Sweden.

Respectable, educated people knew several foreign languages as a rule. One often heard this wisdom stated: “Study the languages, young man. You’ll never regret it.”

That was a multicultural, multilingual Europe back then. You had no trouble getting along in the entire middle Europe if you knew German, only French was good for anything in France and without Italian you would surely be in trouble in Italy. I don’t remember ever speaking English to a Swede.

Nicht hinauslehnen, Ne pas se pencher au dehors, È pericoloso sporgersi, Do not lean out

But that Europe is in the past. Now, attempt a few sentences of poor German to any young Berliner and they respond to you only in English – even if you persist in continuing in German. Exactly the same thing in Stockholm. You can talk directly in English to people in the Netherlands and in Denmark. Also Estonian politicians answers to Finnish journalists are now in English instead of Finnish.

The prime ministers of Finland and Sweden have conversations in English as a sign of equality.

Do you think that hipsters from Helsinki on an Air Berlin flight use German? Zweimal Kaffee mit Milch, bitte. I doubt that.


Everyone speaks Euro-English. Europe has become this grand airport and in airports it is natural to communicate in the one and only language of flight controllers. No one would even know these common terms in any other language: Baggage drop, Security check, Transfer flights.

My strategy was completely wrong. I studied all other languages besides English that I learned from my American friends and pop music. And that’s the level where it stuck as I was too busy studying other languages, becoming an international person.

I was utterly shocked when I realized that good language skills these days equals fluent English. It is an additional benefit to get along using another language besides English, but only something extra. I had studied nine languages, not being able to talk any of them in any sort of fluency. Today’s high school kids speak better English that I do.

I know what you all are going to say. If you want to understand Portugal deeply, you must talk Portuguese to that grandma knitting a sock.

And I agree. But really, it is far more typical that I am talking to a modern European speaking much better English than my Portuguese.

It is far more enjoyable to speak with someone when at least one of us can use their native language. I hate the flat Euro-English. Most people are not bothered by it.

Now it would be proper for you to point out that learning a language is also learning a culture. Oui, oui.

When a western youth are backpacking around Asia learning about local cultures, they are not learning Hindi, Nepalese, Thai or Tagalog.

It weighs me greatly to admit: I could have used my time far better than learning the conjugation of the verbs of French and Spanish.

My linguistic knowledge is now a coat of many colors that I at times enjoy prancing in, but practical it isn’t. If I was 20, I would trade it for impeccable English in a heartbeat.


This is not the Europe I wished for, but this is what it became. I would have liked the old one better.

School students are studying hard to learn: nous reussissions, vous reussissiez, ils reussissaient but they won’t hear French anywhere. They learn to place the infinitive form of the verb at the end of the sentence when using German modal verbs, but can’t understand what means Hände hoch! or Hau ab!

There was films where French, Russian and Italian were spoken in the world now gone, and German detective TV shows.

What in the world could I use to motivate the next generation to study languages they won’t hear anywhere? No German slogans nor French phrases.

The isn’t anything in the whole world that would indicate anything less than continued rise of the English language.

The opposite is likely true: the rise probably becomes steeper. More and more English words and slogans are being mixed with Finnish. Our children will use English daily.

And now we come to what is a sore spot in Finland.

How to motivate my child to learn the obligatory Swedish? Especially, if I live in eastern or northern Finland. What do I say when she learns that in Finland there is a place, Åland, where the Swedish speaking students don’t have to study Finnish language at all.

The Nordic connection? Well, why not rationalize it with the ancient Kalmar Union while we are at it.

I think Swedish classes shouldn’t be mandatory in Finland. There just isn’t enough time for everything.

Now, with this many of you are calling me a TrueFinn for my anti-Swedish opinions.

If we are to have obligatory subjects also in future, then history should be one.

So that one understands what is happening in the world. One must know history so that one doesn’t end up living in the past.

Just to make this crystal clear: I like Sweden and the Swedish language very much and I think it is fun to try to speak that language. Hufvudstadbladet is a good newspaper and I think the Swedish TV programs in Finland are just great. I am all for anyone studying Swedish. But the world has changed.

This one is for English. Unfortunately.


2 thoughts on “Why study so many foreign languages? -No reason

  1. Nice read !! Very deep observation.
    Obviously your English is very very good to be able to churned out this thought provoking article.
    Anyway….I always envy and have huge respect for those who can learn language easily. To be able to study 9-10 language is not easy task.
    Like it or not, English is becoming the de facto language of the world. It is information technology that powered the world today. For example , it is faster for me to get recipe in English for cooking authentic traditional cuisine than the original language/custom of the cuisine itself.
    In my opinion knowing the other culture language, is like the biggest honor you can tribute to people who speak of the language.

    • This is an article by journalist Ilkka Malmberg. I only translated it. I felt he put quite a bit of self-depricating irony in it 😉
      Thank you very much for your comment and sharing your observations.

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