Alumni Corner: Read this before you go study abroad

23.11.2015 | | Emilia Kokkonen

The Finnish language is complex, yet practical and beautiful. You can say and mean a lot of things with just one word. And that fits just perfectly for a culture that is not very fond of idle small talk, or even talking at all.

So what kind of language would be invented by a culture whose people do not like idle chatter or openly showing their emotion: A highly complex language that does not require facial expressions or body gestures to support the message.

This difference can be seen easily in English words like ‘Oh.’. ‘Oh is a very elastic word, like it was made out of chewing gum and rubber bands. The ‘Oh’ word can have several meanings depending on the context, and how much you move your face and how you weigh your tonality. It can be used to project interest, surprise or understanding, if you put the weight at the end: ‘oo-H!’ It can also be used to project negative emotions such as disappointment or disregard by shortening and flattening it: ‘oh…’

The Finnish language is a different story. We don’t place much weight on different words or move our faces. For every emotion we have a different word. Look at the chart below.


Language Word  Tone Emotion/meaning
English Oh. “oo-H” positive, interest
“oh..:” negative, disappointment
“OH!” positive, surprise
Finnish Aah  – positive, interest
Aha  – negative, disregard
Oho  – positive, surprise
Jaahas  – Similar to ‘Oh well’


As you can see, the Finnish language trusts more in the words themselves to get the message across, while other languages such as English place more emphasis on how the word is said.
So what does this have to do with studying abroad? When you study abroad you are going to use different languages with people who are used to communicating differently. Being fluent in English means much more than just knowing how to arrange the right words in the right order. The focus of English language instruction in Finnish schools is on written communication, and we don’t learn much about the real, face-to-face communication.

Oh and believe me, I learned my lessons in communication while studying in Barcelona. My peers thought it was hilarious how I said some things with a straight poker face, and they never knew if I was joking or not. One of my friends said something like ‘Speaking to an average Finnish person who is not intoxicated is like talking to a wall – a highly passive aggressive wall.’ It was even worse with the local Spanish people, who flail their hands while talking as if they wanted to kill insects.

So here’s my tip: move your face and your body while speaking other languages. It might feel a bit awkward at first, but trust me it will come to you. For some reference and training I recommend watching a Spanish telenovela, such as Los Serranos.

I enjoy talking English because it’s like being a whole different person. There’s a whole different “English you” lurking somewhere in the depths of your personality, and when you move abroad it’s time to let that person that out and train it!


topiseepia_pieniTopi Merlin Vuorio graduated from HELBUS with the Class of 2013 and completed his Bachelor’s degree at the EU Business School in Barcelona. From a business-orientated family in Turku, HELBUS helped ignite Topi’s entrepreneurial spirit and he is now developing a small start-up while simultaneously working as a Sales Negotiator in his home city. In addition to writing a series of blogs for Helsinki School of Business, Topi has also started work on a small book. Read more about Topi’s firm

Emilia Kokkonen


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