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Jillian Dy, Hasan, Jemina Mäki, Fatima Sison, Tesfaya Mihret and Kiran Aryal work together at La Famiglia.

Finns must accept foreign-language customer service personnel, says expert

Maarit Rasi, Kaisa Viljanen
Aleksi Poutanen
Julkaistu: 7.5.2024
Muokattu: 7.5.2024
In the future, English will be spoken more and more in restaurants. Language skills are not always the most important thing in customer service, says Markku Sippola of the University of Helsinki.

Good morning!

A cheerful greeting meets me from the back room of the La Famiglia restaurant in Helsinki. Staff from Finland, the Philippines, Nepal, Turkey and Ethiopia wish one another good morning in English. English is also the working language of the restaurant.

In the dining area, the servers mainly serve in Finnish. Kiran Aryal, 44, who moved to Finland from Nepal, learned the new language in two years. Aryal's Finnish is fluent enough for customers to understand.

This is not always the case. For some Finns, a server’s poor Finnish is a problem. Sometimes it is a question of attitude, sometimes the customer may be worried that they will not get their message across in a foreign language.

Seija Flink, 57, and Raili Välikauppi, 69, from Helsinki, who are having lunch at La Famiglia, are happy to be served in English. But they also understand those who wish to be served in Finnish. They think there should be at least one person who speaks Finnish working in every shift.

"This is also a safety issue, as people have a lot of allergies nowadays. QR codes could be added to the menus so that customers could read more about the ingredients," says Välikauppi.

"Language skills are not always the most relevant thing"

Finns will have to get used to not always getting service in Finnish in restaurants, tourism businesses and shops. This is what Timo Lappi, Managing Director of the Finnish Hospitality Association MaRa, said in Helsingin Sanomat in March, when the language debate heated up and was also going on in Parliament.

Both working life and attitudes need to change, says Senior Lecturer Markku Sippola from the University of Helsinki.

"We should change our attitudes so that we also accept people who don't speak Finnish very well as customer service providers. We need customer service people who know what they are doing. Language skills are not always the most relevant thing," says Sippola.

Finnish language requirements are too strict, says also Quivine Ndomo, a Kenyan researcher at the University of Jyväskylä. Ndomo studied the link between Finnish language skills and employment in her doctoral thesis.

In S Group, you can work in many positions, such as a chef or kitchen manager, even if you do not speak Finnish. For customer service jobs, the minimum language requirement is English.

"In a restaurant, there are many ways to make yourself understood, even without a common language. Personally, I use Google Lens if I don't understand."

Ndomo says that language requirements are also unnecessarily high in non-service sectors. Even if the job is done in English, a jobseeker may be required to speak Finnish for coffee-room conversations.

Ndomo interviewed 51 immigrants from outside the EU for her doctoral thesis. According to the researcher, immigrants are being turned into a subordinate workforce for the Finnish labour market – deliberately. Language is often used as an excuse for not hiring highly skilled workers in Finland, according to Ndomo.

"Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether this is discrimination or whether the language requirement is legitimate. Language is also used as a weapon in situations where it’s not really relevant."

Swedish instead of Finnish

According to Ndomo, some people who have moved to Finland feel that learning a new language is pointless. Language skills are no guarantee of employment and it is not possible to acquire perfect language skills in a couple of years.

"If employment is uncertain, why learn a language that’s not useful in the rest of the world? I’ve heard that immigrants have preferred to study Swedish. It’s a language that is useful in two countries."

In the future, language barriers are likely to become even more blurred. Artificial intelligence offers ways to help understanding other languages. Ndomo recalls a course where she was the only participant who did not speak Finnish.

"I used Google translator to record and translate the language into an understandable form. I understood enough."

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