Sunday, April 20, 2014

Finnish fiddling: Building a Finlandssvensk tune

First a bunch of stuff about history, tradition, and some music theoryish stuff.  Skip to the bottom for recordings!

Fiddle vs violin

You all were wondering it - what is the difference between a fiddle and a violin?  Short answer: none.  Long answer: the instrument is the same, but people who play in orchestras generally call their instrument a violin while those who play folk music generally call it a fiddle (interesting side note - "violin" comes from Italian while "fiddle" comes from Old English, so the association of violin with imported classical music and of fiddle with traditional folk music makes sense!).  Not-entirely-serious answer: One has strings, the other has strangs (said in the best redneck accent you can muster).

Double the tradition, double the fun
There is an extremely strong tradition of fiddling in the Nordic countries, and Finland is no exception.  What makes Finnish traditional music (kansanmusiikki) especially interesting is that it, as much of Finnish culture blends traditions from the West (read: Sweden) and East (read: Russia) due to its location.  However, the two traditions seem to remain at least moderately separate.  Each tradition is associated with one of the two main language groups (Western with the Swedish-speaking Finns, Eastern with the Finnish-speaking Finns - see my other posts herehere, and here).  The separation is to the extent that my friends in each group seem to know pretty much everyone within their own tradition, but many fewer from the other group.  Being equally terrible at both languages, I was welcomed into both groups.  This post will be about Swedish-Finnish music (Finlandssvensk musik, since it is in Swedish), since I have had more opportunities to play that.

Finlandssvensk musik
Dancing queens
The point of this music, as with much folk music, is to be danceable (think along the lines of the Virginia Reel from middle school), so it has to be exciting!  There are a bunch of different types of tunes with different feels; polska, polka (other traditions also have varieties of polka...) hambo, schottische (based on Scottish strathspey), quadrille, waltz, and minuet.  I have collected a bunch of each kind, and will post them here eventually for you to hear.

Dancing to Finnish music on the Folklandia cruise; 24 straight hours of Finnish folk music and dancing on a cruise ship!

Fiddle is key
One of the interesting things about Finlandssvensk musik is the band setup.  I am used to American stringbands, which generally have a good mix of instruments including fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bass.  When I meet American folk musicians, guitar is by far the most common instrument (except possibly in Boston - there are a lot of fiddles there).  However, it seems that here (Finland specifically, but I think it applies to the Nordic countries) fiddle is the most popular folk instrument, and it has a big historical tradition of being so.

Building a band with just one instrument
So, if all you have for your band is a bunch of fiddles, how do you make it not suck?  How do you make the music exciting enough to get feet moving?  The strategy is something similar to that in an orchestra - there is a first fiddle (melody) and a second fiddle (harmony).  The two parts are different and specific skills - the first fiddle is responsible for carrying the melody and ensuring that there is a good and danceable beat, while the second fiddle is responsible for improvising a harmony to keep it interesting.  In the group that I played with, everyone was technically capable of playing either, but most people truly were specialized in one over the other.

How to build a Finlandssvensk tune

Folk music can be written out, just like classical music, but unlike classical music, the notes are just guidelines.  It is just like a bunch of different people reading a storybook - every person has a dialect from their region and then their own personal way of speaking, so that two people from the same region will tell the story in similar (but not identical ways) while people from different countries would read the same story in a completely different way.  Here are some things that go into the Finnish folk music "dialect".

Ornaments are basically extra notes that make the music prettier, and are some of the most recognizable aspects of folk music.  They can include what classical musicians call "grace notes" (fast, little notes that go before the main note), short "trills" (switching quickly back and forth between two adjacent notes), and "double-stops" (playing two strings at once), but folk musicians use them much more frequently and in a different manner.  Finnish music includes all of these things.

Time Signature
This fiddle music is mostly meant for dancing, and it carries a strong beat (a beat is the pulse of the music that basically tells you when to take the next step).  The beats come in different patterns for different tunes - groups of two, three, and four are pretty common in Western folk music.  In each group of beats, each usually gets a different strength, and stronger ones usually indicate stronger movement.  For instance a waltz has the strongest beat on the first (you would count "ONE two three, ONE two three), and the dance similarly has the largest step on the first beat.  Finnish music includes these waltzes (which we also have in the Americas), but they also have dances with the strong beat on three ("one two THREE, one two THREE") that are totally foreign in our music.  In fact this actually is one of the most common beat pattern in Finland (whereas in the USA, pretty much everything is in four "one two three four, one two three four").

One of the unique aspects of Finnish (and other Nordic) fiddle styles that sets it apart from Anglo-Celtic/American styles is the use of twin-fiddle harmony (though I guess it exists somewhat in Canada).  One (or more) fiddles will play the melody, while another fiddle plays a harmony line below the melody (for people who know their music theory: according to a conversation I had with Arto Järvelä, this harmony is commonly either a sixth or a third below the melody).  American music often does harmony as well, but often in our vocal music, and then it can be above (the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou is probably one of the best-known examples of American music outside the USA - listen to the chorus of Man of Constant Sorrow for harmony above the melody; you can also count that the beats go "one two three four").

Example of a Finnish Waltz

I got to play with the Österbottniska Spelmän on an awesome Finnish folk music boat cruise, and took some recordings of the sets.  Here is a waltz in the Ostrobothnian (Swedish-speaking Finnish) style, recorded at a dance on the boat.  Things to listen for:
  • Time signature - in three.  Since it is a waltz, the emphasis is on beat one (but the Finnish influence of a strong beat creeps in a little) - "ONE two three, ONE two three"
  • Lots of fiddles - I think we had like 5 or 6 playing melody, and me playing harmony with another guy on viola

Me, playing with the Österbottniska Spelmän on the Folklandia 2014 boat cruise.  Me and the guy in front of me are playing harmony, while the other four on the right of the picture are playing melody.  The recording was from a different performance than this one, but the setup was pretty much the same.
Now here is me playing the melody by myself so you can hear the grace notes (all the little really fast notes in between the others).

Listen: Melody solo (written below)

Finally, here is me playing harmony to the recording of me above, so you can hear an example of a Finnish harmony.  The notes (from my friend Jarl Ahlbeck - thanks!) are below, so you can follow along!

Listen: Harmony solo (written below)
Listen: Melody + Harmony (the two recordings above)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Diversity in Finland part 2 of 3, By the Numbers

When Americans hear that Finns have a better education system (if you believe the PISA rankings...), they often dismiss it because "Finland is just so homogeneous."  While this to me sounds racist (it seems based on the notion that "diversity" is negative, and "diversity" often means non-white people), I was curious in taking a deeper look at what exactly is the "diversity" in both the USA and Finland.  Here is an extremely brief look at some of the minority groups here in Finland.

Sorry if it kind of rambles and is disconnected - I spent a lot of time looking things up and ended up just writing what seemed interesting.  The next post will put some of this in context.

Finland's minority populations = ~10%
Population percentages are based on a total Finland population of 5,426,674 (Statistics Finland).  Also, I'm not as knowledgeable to minority issues as I should be (though I'm trying!), so if I say something stupid or offensive or my tone comes off that way, call me out on it.

Finlandssvensk - 5.4% [based on # Swedish speakers; data from Statistics Finland]
As I mentioned in the previous post, the Swedish-speaking Finns (who call themselves Finlandssvensk) are 100% Finnish, but are in many ways distinct from the rest of the Finnish population.  I include them in my count of diversity here because they speak a different language at home.  However, it is important to note that they are definitely part of the "mainstream" culture and are not nearly as marginalized as minority groups often are in most countries.

Unofficial Finlandssvensk flag, according to Wikipedia
Sami - <0.1% [based on linguistic data from Statistics Finland]
NOTE: I have zero experience with Sami (also written Saami or Sámi) people, as they tend to live in the north, so this is just based on what I have learned/read.  As far as I know, they look and sound more or less like other Finns, so perhaps I just have not recognized them.

Sami (Saami in Finnish, Sámi in their language) are the officially-recognized indigenous people of Finland.  They generally live in the north and are traditionally nomadic reindeer (caribou, for any Canadian friends out there!) herders.  Politically, they are official Finnish citizens and members of an indigenous minority, but they do not have any special legal treatment as far as I know (unlike Native Americans in the USA who live on reservations that are for some purposes considered foreign nations).  Because the Sami have been around since long before the Nordic nation states they currently live in, their distribution spans across those national borders, which leads to all sorts of difficulties as they are treated differently in each country.

Though the Sami are recognized officially in Finland, they do not have the same political status as the Finlandssvensk, and it is still difficult for them to receive education in their native language.  However, at least part of the reason for this is the difficult associated with providing such instruction due to the low number of speakers.  Furthermore, there are several modern Sami languages (all belong to the same Finno-Ugric language family as Finnish and Hungarian, but my Finnish friends say that they can not natively understand any of these other languages), reducing the number of speakers of each even more.  Further complicating matters is the fact that among the 9 most common Sami languages, 6 have different written languages and the remaining 3 have none.  Crazy/awesome!

Flag for the indigenous Sami people (source: Wikipedia). They are a people that spans other political borders
Romani - 0.2% [source: Ministry of Social Affairs and Health]
SIDE NOTE: Americans would know the Romani as Gypsies, though I have been told that term is rude and "Traveling People" is more politically correct in English.  It is interesting how when your country does not have a certain culture, that culture becomes a socially-acceptable character - just as we do not have a large Romani population and therefore feel okay dressing up as a stereotypical Gypsy, Finns are totally okay dressing up as stereotypical Native Americans, complete with headdresses and "war paint".  That is totally NOT OKAY in the USA, just as I'm sure it would be really offensive to dress up as a Roma person here.  I still am shocked when I see people here in full-on "Indian brave" costumes.

The Romani have a history of oppression in Finland (and I guess the rest of Europe) and could legally be killed on sight when their people arrived to Finland from Sweden in the 1600s.  Their situation improved with time and they were given full Finnish citizenship when Finland gained independence in 1917.  However, they were forcibly assimilated by "adoption" of children in the first half of the 1900s (I think this is a sugar-coated way of saying government-sanctioned kidnapping).  Finally, in the 1970s they began to be accepted more and more, and became a fully-protected "traditional minority" of Finland in the 1990s and early 2000s.  One of the modern difficulties faced by the Romani is that many of them, especially women, wear distinct traditional clothing and are therefore immediately recognizable, and discrimination can occur immediately.

I know very little beyond this about the Romani people, so if you are curious to learn more I would recommend checking out information from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.

Flag of the Romani people, again no matter which country they live in (source Wikipedia)
Immigrants - 4.9% [based on # speakers of languages listed above; data from Statistics Finland]
Finland accepts many fewer immigrants and refugees than its friend/neighbor/rival/enemy Sweden.  However, Finland really tries hard to make sure that its immigrants are able to integrate into Finnish society and seems to view this as more important than taking huge numbers of people.  There are lots of support services available to immigrants, and all languages that have at least three pupils at a school get to have class in that language for at least a few hours per week.

As a native-speaker of English, and especially a white American with a very understandable accent (so I'm told), I am a very welcome foreigner here.  American culture is very prevalent, and many Finns are trying to speak English as well as they can, so people are very happy to talk to me to learn about my culture and language (again, this is what I have been told).  However, some of my friends have had different experiences, and even 100% Finnish friends who do not appear as purely Finnish as others experience discrimination.
Native languages in Finland, and their respective share of both the Finnish population and the immigrant population.  Data from Statistics Finland.  Sorry it looks so ugly...

Planning for immigrants is a relatively new task for Finland.  Statistics Finland has more cool data.

Comparison to the USA
NOTE: It is always difficult to compare the entire USA to any other country because all the parts are so different.  Also, its population is 59 times higher than Finland's.

The most striking thing to me is that in Finland, the largest minority group is in fact a group of native Finns, the Finlandssvensk (though if things continue as they have been, as seen in the graph above, then this will not be true for long!).  This is interesting because though they have a different mother tongue, they are very much part of the mainstream culture and able to work the political machinery that keeps them there.  The closest the USA comes to a group like the Finlandssvensk is, I think, the Jewish population, which makes up around 1-2% of the US population.  Like the Finlandssvensk, American Jews generally speak an additional language (Hebrew in this case, though usually not as fluently as Finlandssvensk speak Swedish), are more educated on average, are generally white (important because it makes them less identifiable and therefore less easy targets), and know how to work the political system (while not all American Jews are pro-Israel, I doubt that America would be as strongly tied to Israel without the political pressure of those that are, but then again I do not know huge amounts about politics).

One of the big differences seems to be that, based on that graph showing a sharp upturn in immigrants to Finland in the 1990s, most people with foreign background either came to Finland themselves or were born to people who did.  Contrast this to the USA where most people have a foreign background, but for many of them it is way back in their family history (a note to my foreign friends - many Americans LOVE talking about their family ancestry, so it is a great conversation starter when you meet one of us).

Overall, Finland definitely seems a more welcoming place than the USA for new immigrants, but in some ways it might be harder for them to become truly integrated into the country beyond just becoming a citizen.  There are many programs to help out with language, and of course there is the huge social welfare "safety net" with many important services available, even to those with little or no income.  However, it seems very difficult for even highly skilled foreigners to get jobs in Finland, as fluent Finnish is generally one of the minimum requirements.  My foreign friends who are doing their masters here can only find jobs cleaning cruise ships for pocket change (or if they are fortunate to be a native English speaker, tutoring English).  A further example of the difference in job access to highly skilled foreigners - none of my professors here are foreigners (though there have been some visiting professors from abroad), but in many large US universities Americans might even be in the minority.

I'm having trouble finding numbers to compare to the graphs above for Finland, so I will just go with bullet points of what I can find:
  • 21% of people living in the USA speak a language other than English at home
    • Of these, 60% speak English "very well".  This means that 8% of people living in the USA speak English less than "very well"
  • 15% of people living in the USA were born outside the USA
    • Of these, 46% have become citizens.  This means that 8% of people living in the USA are not citizens
Most common heritages for people living in the USA.  While Finland has modern immigrants, US immigration has been part of its history, and so many people born there today identify as American, but have a cultural history as well.  Data source: US Census data (EDITED to include nonwhite ancestries that somehow were not in the original data I found.  I still cannot find a more detailed listing of Black ancestry...).
Major heritage groups in the USA that we call "races" because I guess that is what happens when the immigration was far in the past. Source: US Census data

Monday, February 17, 2014

Runeberg, Swedish-speaking Finns, and delicious cakes (with recipe!)

Last Wednesday (February 5) was one of Finland's few national holidays.  It marked the birthday of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Finland's national poet, perhaps best known for composing the poem that became the words to the national anthem (Maamme/Vårt Land), and the tasty pastries that bear his name (though I think his only relationship to those was enjoying them).  More on those in a second.  First, I want to talk about something that I have been meaning to get to for a long time, which is Finland's largest minority, the Swedish-speaking Finns or Finlandssvensk.

Runeberg and the Finland-Swedish
If you look at Johan Ludvig Runeberg's name, you might not guess that he is Finnish (perhaps Kimi Räikkönen or Sauli Niinistö look more like you expect?).  In fact, if you look at any list of Finns you will notice a bunch of names that look Swedish.  Now if you know your Finnish history, then this should make sense to you because of the hundreds of years the place we call Finland today spent as part of Sweden.  But what is truly interesting is the continued existence today of a Swedish-speaking minority, the Swedish-speaking Finns (Finlandssvensk/Suomenruotsalainen).

The Swedish-speaking Finns could be considered a separate ethnic group from the Finnish-speaking Finns; however, everyone I have met from both groups self-identifies as Finnish the same amount.  It kind of reminds me of my Jewish friends in the US who are 100% American, the only difference is that their families have some additional traditions, slightly different cultures, and know a language that is the language of another nation.  (However, the analogy is obviously not perfect.  For example, Swedish-speaking Finns are totally fluent in Swedish and speak it at home, while many American Jews only know a little Hebrew.)

Finlandssvensk and privilege
NOTE: The reason I have hesitated to write about Finlandssvensk for so long is that the discussion can easily become political and therefore unpleasant.  I therefore apologize in advance if I say something that offends someone, and am trying to write this as a totally objective and curious/surprised foreigner, which is an accurate reflection of my feelings on this topic.  Seriously, it is very interesting how such a small minority maintains such privilege.

Finlandssvensk is definitely a minority in Finland, with only around 5% of Finns identifying as Swedish-speaking (the exact percentage varies from town to town - many places on the Finnish coast near Sweden have over 50%, and the Åland Islands - a politically interesting area, are mostly Swedish-speaking).  However, the group maintains a very privileged status, with their language recognized as one of the two national languages (the other, unsurprisingly, is Finnish), meaning that all signs and documents all across the country must be in both Finnish and Swedish, even in towns with very few or zero Swedish-speakers (EDIT to part in italics: Having not been all over Finland yet, I made the incorrect assumption that what I have seen here in Turku applies there too.  Apparently only once there is a certain % Swedish-speakers do the signs have to include Swedish, and then over 50% means Swedish is the first language.  This is a major inconvenience as demographics change because an entire city's signs must be redone if the percent Swedish-speakers changes).  Other examples of privilege include Swedish-speaking schools, official translation during sessions of Parliament, and that all students must spend several years learning the language in school.

This privilege is maintained actively by one of the political parties (Finland has a multiparty system), the Swedish People's Party of Finland, but I am almost certain that the historical roots go back to the Swedish-speakers used to be the dominant group in Finland.  When Finland was part of Sweden hundreds of years ago the Swedes were the ruling class, Finns were the peasant class, and actually German-speakers were a merchant class because of the Hanseatic League.  This meant that the Swedish-speakers were the upper class who had access to education and other benefits.  However, by the time Russia took Finland in the early 1800s, the Swedish-speakers considered themselves as Finnish and used their status and privilege to promote Finnish sovereignty.  Many of the famous Finnish nationalists from that era (e.g., Jean Sibelius, Adolf Ivar Arwidsson) were Swedish-speakers, which to me seems comparable in surprise to (for example) Quebecois independence being led by an English-speaker, but maybe I am missing something.

All signs must be in both Finnish and Swedish, with the majority language of the area written first.  The blue sign at the bottom of the image says that this is the place to get the ferry between two islands, first in Swedish, then in Finnish.  This picture is from a bike trip I took back when it was warmer...

Finlandssvensk and other Finns

The two groups actually stay fairly distinct, even from a young age.  Finlandssvensk are concerned about preserving their language, culture, and status in Finland and so often they send their children to Swedish-speaking basic schools.  These schools are set up to discourage too much interaction with Finnish speakers, to the point where one of the local school buildings with both a Finnish-speaking and a Swedish-speaking school actually has different recess times for the different languages.  Universities are also kept fairly segregated, and here in Turku (Åbo in Swedish) there are two universities (UTUÅA) and two schools of applied science (TUASNovia) - one of each for each language.

The most common complaint I have observed about the Finlandssvensk is the national requirement of learning Swedish.  Many Finnish-speakers resent this, perhaps in the same way that many Americans resent having to learn Spanish in school.  The end result is similar - many Finns are pretty terrible at Swedish, just as are many Americans who study Spanish.  In fact, many people I have met like to joke that my Swedish after a few months of study is better than theirs after several years.  There even was a recent initiative to remove mandatory Swedish from the curriculum, the argument being that much of the country does not ever interact with Swedish-speakers, and that if a non-Finnish language is going to be taught, English (or in some places, especially on the Eastern border, Russian) might be a better option.  Parliament voted this proposal down, but the feelings remain.

It is also interesting to hear the stereotypes of the Finlandssvensk (stereotypes generally are a bad idea, but as a foreigner they are an interesting way to see the opinion of one group about the other).  They are considered to have wealthier families, perhaps in the same way that Americans often consider New Englanders rich - we know that many are not, but then there are definitely some who are (there even is the same rude saying of "Daddy pays" - "Pappa betalar").  Finlandssvensk are usually considered to be more outgoing and friendly, and there is a joke about if you see someone smiling, they must be a either foreigner or a Finlandssvensk (this one I have observed, on average, to be true).

Svenska i Åbo
I currently am in Turku (Åbo in Swedish), which was the capital of Finland when it was part of Sweden.  Today, there still is a large Swedish-speaking population and many services dedicated to them.  As mentioned above, there are separate universities that seem equal to the Finnish-speaking ones.  There is also a Swedish theater, a Swedish adult/continuing education system (which incidentally is where I am taking Swedish classes), and a large Finlandssvensk celebration called Svenska Dagen.

Runeberg's Torts
Okay, now for the really important part - food!  Runeberg was famous for liking a pastry that now bears his name.  It is only available in stores for the month leading up to Runeberg's day (February 5).  I did not know anything about them until several of my friends told me they are "the food of the gods".  I like sweet things, and that was pretty high praise from Finnish people who do not tend to over exaggerate too much, so I had to try some.  Seriously, they are food of the gods - slight almond flavor (like marzipan), covered in jam and icing, and soaked in a sugar-cognac syrup.

The recipe is kind of involved, so I will just point you to this blog post where I got the recipe from.  It's a great recipe for a really tasty food!

My attempt at Runeberg Tarts, one with raspberry jam (traditional) and one with seabuckthorn jam (not traditional, but a Finnish jam), kind of matching the colors of the Finlandssvensk flag.  I did not have cake rings to make a nice tart, so instead I just used muffin wrappers.  The recipe has beautiful examples of how they should look.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Finnish language: what I have learned so far

The Finnish have no sex and no future

General interesting things

The above quotation from who-knows-where (though this is the internet, so I probably should cite Confucius or Abraham Lincoln) is a joke about the Finnish language ("suomen kieli").  What it means is that 1) there is no grammatical sex, even in pronouns (aka English she and he are just one word in Finnish - hän), and 2) no future tense (you can only discuss your plans in the present tense).  The relationship between language and culture is interesting because Finland is also one of the most gender-equal countries (#2/138 countries on the recent World Economic Forum gender equity rankings), so I wonder if the gender equal society and language are related.  It is really interesting to my American brain to hear Finnish and not have any clue the genders of the people being discussed (sometimes even if I hear names - some names that resemble common American names of a specific gender belong to the opposite gender in Finland; e.g., Kari and Lauri look like American female names but are in fact male in Finland).  It is also interesting because one of the most common English mistakes Finns make is mixing up he/she, even if they are extremely fluent, which I think means that their brains just do not consider whether a person is male or female when talking about them.  People with other native languages also make this mistake, but they seem to correct it faster; sometimes Finns just totally don't realize they mixed the pronouns up and just continue talking.  Wikipedia actually has a great article on this topic, and how gender works in gender-neutral languages (hint: it is different everywhere!).  And for the really curious, Sweden is finally catching up to Finland and officially introduced a gender-neutral pronoun into their language.

Also, no possession

There is no word for "to have" in Finnish.  Instead, you say minulla on ___ = ____ is at me.  This includes hunger; minulla on nälkä = (literally) at me is hunger.

Comparisons to other languages
One of my Finnish instructors gave the analogy that Finnish grammar is like a pyramid - it is wide on the bottom (lots of rules to learn initially), but narrow on top (new words are easy once you learn the rules).  For comparison, he said English is like an inverted pyramid, where it is very easy to start but then gets extremely difficult to become fluent because there are so many crazy exceptions to all the crazy rules.  Pronunciation follows this as well - in Finnish you pronounce words as you see them, while in English you basically have to guess how to pronounce new words.

People love talking about the Foreign Service's language difficulty ranking, which estimates that it takes over 1100 hours (that's like 10 semesters of normal college classes) to get proficient at Finnish!  In addition to Finnish, I have studied a few of the "easy" languages on this list (French, Italian, and Swedish) but only one of the hardest (Japanese), so it has been interesting to think about their differences from Finnish, and compare difficulties.  Both Finnish and Japanese require a totally different sense of grammar then we learn in English, and Finnish might even have a more difficult style of grammar than Japanese.  However, Japanese is much, much harder because of the writing (they have two 70-character alphabets used in conjugation and spelling, AND a set of pictographic characters like Chinese) and the way that culture is entwined with the language (when talking to members of a different social rank like parents or teachers, there is a set of words so different it is almost another language).  To put it simply, I know a few (not many) foreigners in Finland who are pretty fluent, but I never even heard about foreigners while I was in Japan who were close to that.

It is interesting to see what languages share words with Finnish, because it isn't many.  In an earlier post I talked about some words, but I have since learned a lot more about Finnish.  There are very few cognates to English, and so I was very surprised when I saw that some of the days of the week are similar (maanantai, tiistai, torstai, sunnuntai) but then I realized they are the same in Swedish.  Then I realized that all the English cognates I could think of (except for obviously-modern things like taksi) were actually the same in Swedish, so I figure that words made their way between English and Finnish through Swedish, which makes sense based on Finnish history.  

Huomio! Things to be careful of in Finnish...

The difference between "a" and "ä" might not look like much but changing the pronunciation can totally change the meaning of a word (examples follow at the bottom).  This is the probably the hardest sound to distinguish for me as an American because both sounds are made by our letter "a".  Finnish also has "o" and "ö", and "u" and "y"; the difference between these three pairs is where your tongue is when you make the sound (here is a pronunciation guide).

Single vs. double letters

Again, this might look silly to English-speakers, but a lot of the meaning is carried in the length of each sound, just as in Chinese meaning is changed by the tone with which you say the sound.  We do this to some extent in English to communicate emotional meaning.  For instance we ask questions by raising the tone of our voice at the end of a sentence, while in other languages (like Finnish) a question word (or word ending: -ko in Finnish) does the trick.  Same with sound length; we use that to stress different parts of words or sentences.  Examples of how sound length makes a difference:
tapaan = I meet   VS   tapan = I kill
kuusi = spruce   VS   kusi = piss   (though maybe this explains why that Christmas tree smelled the way it did...)
Kokko, kokoo koko kokko kokoon = Kokko (name), gather together the whole bonfire.
Tuli tuli, tuli tuuli, tuuli tuuli, tuli sammui = Fire came, wind came, the wind blew, and the fire went out (which actually makes sense!).


Prepositions are important in English ("I eat you" vs "I eat with you").  However, Finnish does not have prepositions and instead uses word endings in the same way.  So instead of saying "I go to the store" you can say Menen kauppaan.  Sometimes there is only one correct ending based on the context and if you get the wrong one people will figure it out, but other times getting it wrong will change the meaning, sometimes in a huge way:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ And now my favorite example (thanks to Reddit):

Näin norsun = I saw an elephant.
Näin norsua = I dated an elephant (not sure if this one is correct).
Nain norsun = I married an elephant.
Nain nursua = I had sex with an elephant (and who said the Finns didn't have sex...).
The difference is whether it is näin (past tense of nähdä) or nain (past tense of naida), and whether norsu is in accusitive (norsun) or partitive (norsua) case.  Careful what you say!

Agglutinative language

In Finnish, endings can be added together to build meanings.  This almost seems like Latin to me (not knowing how Latin actually works), where you can combine things like unus ("one") and versus ("turned into one") to get the word that became English university.  In Finnish, university is yliopisto which breaks into something like yli/opi/sto = upper/learn/place.

My favorite example of taking endings to the extreme (I found these online, so I am not positive of their truth) is: lento/kone/suihku/turbiini/apu/mekaanikko/ali/upseeri/oppilas = flying/machine/jet/turbine/assistant/mechanic/under/officer/student = Air Force non-commissioned officer student being trained as an assistant technician to repair jet turbines used in airplanes.  Another fun example of adding words together gives 7 vowels in a row; hääyöaie, which breaks down into hää/yö/aie = wedding night intention.

Of course, there are also homonyms (words that are written and pronounced the same but with different meanings) in Finnish just like in English.
For instance: Etsivät etsivät etsivät etsivät etsivätThe detectives who look for detectives are looking for themselves (reminiscent of the famous grammatically-correct sentence in English "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.") [source: yet Reddit again]

Finnish has homonyms, just like English.
From Reddit; no idea where they got it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

How Finland treats its teachers - not what you think

First of all, Hyvää Uuttaa Vuotta (Happy New Year for all you who don't know Finnish)!

The American take on Finnish teachers

Whenever I read articles in the American popular media about Finnish education, they always point to how the teachers are treated differently with things like respect, Master's degrees, and salary.  However, being in Finland for almost five months now, I feel that the differences highlighted  are often meaningless, and those of significance are largely ignored.  So here is my take on the differences in the status of the teaching profession in Finland and the USA.

Finnish teachers need a Master's degree

I see this one all the time.  This is totally true and different from the US (only a bachelors is required), but it totally misses the differences what "Master's" and "Bachelor's" degrees actually mean in the two countries.  In the US (at least among people and schools I know), the two degrees are usually quite separate and people will attend two different schools for the two degrees, often in two different fields and often after a few-year break to work.  In Finland on the other hand, the two are often part of a single program and you just go through the full five-year program, getting your bachelors after writing a thesis.  What this means is that in Finland, most people who get a university degree get at least a Master's (84% who get a Bachelor's also get a Master's), so it is not surprising that teachers also have to get a Master's since they are trained in universities.  On the other hand, the natural breaking point in the US system means that only 38% of Americans who get a Bachelor's go on to get a Master's as well.  It is worth noting that 48% of teachers have gone on to get their own Master's as well, well above the American average.

The setup is because (according to one of my history-buff friends here) Finland had to adapt its existing university system when it joined the European Union, and the easiest way to make their 5-year university degree fit was to call it a Master's, and then add a stopping point in the middle and call it a Bachelor's.

% population
% teachers
18.4% [1]
7.1% [1]
48% [3]
10.1% [2]
8.5% [2]
* Current legislation demands a Bachelor's for teacher certification in the US and a Master's in Finland.  Teachers certified before might not have these degrees, so the real figures are likely to be lower than 100%.
[3] National Center for Education Statistics, 2012

Also interestingly, there are more than 10 times as many applicants as positions available in Finland's 8 teacher-training schools.  This means that statistically, you have as much chance of becoming a teacher in Finland as getting into MIT.  Crazy!

Me, with some education friends at the Educarium - University of Turku's education building.  Admission to teacher training programs here is as unlikely as getting into MIT for Finns (and basically impossible for foreigners).
Summary for the lazy: Finnish teachers need a Master's, but basically all university-trained Finns get one.  Finnish teacher school is literally as selective as MIT.


One of the things I have learned here from all my foreign friends is that educators in every single country feel undervalued and underpaid.  Even Finland (though maybe less so).  When I looked up some polls on occupational prestige, I was not surprised to find that it is #1 in Finland.  I was, however, surprised to see it at #6 in the US with 51% of respondents finding it to be "very high prestige".  Perhaps even more interestingly, teaching is apparently the American profession growing fastest in prestige over the 30 years this poll has been conducted - in 1979, just 29% of respondents found it "very high prestige".  Will this trend continue until teaching is #1 like in Finland?  Who knows.

Summary for the lazy (really, one paragraph is too much?): Teaching is the #1 most prestigious job in Finland, #6 (but rising) in the US

Work life

I could not believe the numbers when I saw them: American teachers apparently are required to teach double the hours that Finnish teachers are - 1051 hours per year versus 550**.  Finnish teachers also don't have all the silly bureaucratic paperwork that so many American teachers have because basically it is trusted that they will do a good job once they are accepted into and graduate from teacher training school.  Seriously, there is basically no administration in Finland and even the principals at many schools still teach at least one or two classes (more on this another time, but imagine what this means financially as well).

**Though I trust the OECD and their data collection techniques in general, but I am a little surprised by these results.  Based on the 180-day American school year and 188-day Finnish school year, American teachers teach 5.8 hours per day and Finnish teachers teach 2.9 hours per day.  However, the teachers I have met here all teach around 4-5 hours per day.

Summary: American teachers have many more obligations than Finnish teachers, meaning potentially high levels of stress and less time for planning enriching educational activities.


Americans love to talk about economic arguments for everything.  I found a bunch of different salary data for the two countries, and tried to compare a number of different ways (economist friends - what is the actual best way to do this?).  I tried the following: 1) converting salary Finnish Euros to US $ using the OECD Purchasing Power Parity conversion (it basically equalizes based on the cost of goods; data and explanation), 2) comparing the ratio of teacher salary to average salary for the same level of education, and 3) comparing the ratio of teacher salary to per-capita GDP.  In all metrics and for all values of salary (below), US teachers earn more than Finnish teachers. 

General Public
Per-Capita GDP*
Ave. Salary Equiv. Deg.*
Domestic Data*
OECD* [9]
15 years experience
$52,000 [5]
$53,000 [3]
$52,000 [4]

Earning Potential**
Share GDP***
General Public
Per-Capita GDP*
Ave. Salary Equiv. Deg.*
Domestic Data*
OECD* [9]
15 years experience
$46,000 [5]
$57,000 [7]
$41,000 [8]
Earning Potential**
Share GDP***

*All monetary figures for the US are reported in raw US $.  All monetary figures for the Finland are converted to US $ using the OECD PPP 2012 conversion rate of 0.907 OECD 2013c.  All monetary figures for both countries are rounded to the nearest $1,000 to avoid implying nonexistent accuracy
**Earning Potential represents how much money the career makes compared to the median for those with the same degree qualifications (Median Salary divided by Median Salary for that degree in the General Public; calculated using unrounded data)
***Share GDP represents the share of the Per-Capita GDP that Median Salary earns (Median Salary divided by Per-Cap GDP; calculated using unrounded data)
[3] US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013 ; Median annual wages
[4] US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012; Salary data is median elementary school teacher annual wage
[7] Statistics Finland 2013d; “Total earnings”
[8] Statistics Finland 2013b; Salary data is luokanopettaja mean annual wage
[9] OECD 2013b

Summary: US teachers seem to make more

Teacher retention

American teachers simply (generally) do not stick around for very long, which has been long identified as a problem.  In fact, each year 9% of American teachers leave the profession and apparently half of new teachers leave the profession within just five years of teaching (source, but it is behind a paywall).  In comparison, 85-90% of Finnish teachers do not leave the profession until retirement (I don't have primary data on this, just several reliable sources that mention the number without citation, like this OECD report and this article by Pasi Sahlberg, a leading Finnish expert on education).

Summary: Over 85% of Finnish teachers stay for most of their careers while 50% of American teachers leave within 5 years

Summary Table
(because I love tables...)
Sorry for the quality, I made the table in Word and apparently it didn't transfer well...