There is a curious phenomenon that takes place when friends or family from my remote hometown in the Canadian wilderness visit me here in Finland. When they are meeting my friends at a dinner party or around a table at the pub, I often end up having to take on the role as the interpreter.
The international group, all speaking English comfortably, found it difficult to follow the native speakers. In a world where English is a tool of communication, it can be ironically difficult for native speakers to separate the tool from the mother tongue when needing to communicate with various levels of speakers.
In international contexts, business or otherwise, anglophones may actually be at a disadvantage when it comes to clearly communicating in the global lingua franca (the language used to communicate with people of other languages). This tendency has been noted in recent years with articles from the BBC and Forbes, amongst others, describing how international companies are starting to choose competent non-native English speakers over anglophones specifically in order to avoid misunderstandings in communication. A native speaker’s language is coloured with slang, idiomatic expression, nuance, and filled with cultural-specific references, which don’t translate to the lingua franca. For example, it could be difficult for non-native speakers to understand the references of the common American use of sports metaphors, such as ‘the whole nine yards’ or ‘a ballpark estimate’, or to grasp the level of severity of a point made with British understatement. On the other hand, a non-native speaker who has gone through the process of learning the language, can be free from the complex linguistic baggage and more aware of how to use neutral, clear, and simple language.
This is where the Nordics come in. With high levels of proficiency in English, combined with the sensitivity of being an outsider to the language, the Nordics are in a perfect position to operate with the highly functional but tool-like neutral English that is desired in the world of international business or academia. So, the opportunity is there, but in order to overtake the Anglos in the leadership roles of international communication, it could be good to first fix some of the ways that your own native language might be impacting the clarity and neutrality of your English.
And, in case you were wondering, here is a quick explanation of ‘the whole nine yards’ and ‘a ballpark estimate’.
- ‘the whole nine yards’ means to do something to the fullest extent or to take on something all the way to the end. There are various theories concerning the origin of this expression, with one being that it comes from American football. In American football they try to move up the field in distances of 10 yards. If a team has only moved one yard and they have one chance left, they go for ‘the whole nine yards’.
- ‘ballpark estimate’ means an estimate that isn’t exact but roughly in the area. A ballpark is a place where baseball is played and works here as a metaphor for ‘an area’. So, if an American says, ‘You’re in the ballpark,’ it means that your guess is close.
Here you can play a small game that tests some of the most common mistakes specifically made by native-Finnish speakers in English.