Mayor suggests Helsinki declare itself an English-language city

Juhana Vartiainen says too many highly skilled foreigners shun Finnish capital because of difficult language

Helsinki should consider declaring itself an English-language city, its mayor has suggested, arguing that too many highly skilled international workers are shunning the Finnish capital partly because of exacting language requirements.

Finland’s two main official languages are Finnish, which has 15 grammatical cases and is notoriously difficult for foreigners to learn, and Swedish. Many companies require Finnish and public sector employees must master both.

An increasingly serious shortage of technology and other professionals last year prompted the country to try offering foreign workers and their families the chance to relocate to Finland for 90 days to see if they want to make the move permanent.

But more than 36% of foreign students in Finland leave within a year of graduation, according to government figures, with most citing immigration bureaucracy, high taxation and language difficulties as their main reasons for quitting.

“Helsinki could call itself an English-speaking city, where people who speak English wouldn’t need to speak Finnish or Swedish,” the capital’s mayor, Juhana Vartiainen, told the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper.

The paper recently profiled four foreign postgraduates in fields such as artificial intelligence and mobile communications who left the country saying the Finnish language was too difficult, wages were low and Finns too hard to connect with.

Vartiainen said the city and country’s efforts to attract and keep foreign professionals were “a terrible failure”, adding that it had sunk in “only very slowly to the political consciousness that we need employment-based immigration”.

To attract more highly skilled foreign professionals, Vartiainen, a former liberal-conservative MP elected to city hall in June, suggested Helsinki should also expand its English-language education in kindergartens and primary schools.

“But these are matters decided at the national level that Helsinki can’t influence,” he said. He added, however, that the climate crisis could work in Finland’s favour by making “small, safe, nature-oriented Finland” a more attractive place to foreigners.

Finland, which brought the world Nokia, SMS, 5G and Linux, has a booming €6bn startup scene and one of the world’s highest number of digital startups per capita, but experts say growth is being seriously held back by labour supply problems.


Jon Henley Europe correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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