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I'm traveling to Finland for a week and mostly doing touristy things. I've been excited and decided to learn some Finnish for fun. I know everyone there is going to know English better than I learn in a couple weeks when casually using Duolingo.

I'd like to use what I do learn and comes up, even if just saying hello, excuse me, thanks, etc, and switch to English as soon as I can't say something.

Is that going to be offensive or annoying?

I'll do my best to say things right, but I'll probably have a strong accent. If asked to repeat myself or at the first sign of frustration I'll knock it off.

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    Having spent a couple of weeks in France & Austria a couple of summers ago, any attempts at resurrecting my (limited) high school French and miserable German (mainly numbers to 10 and Danke/Bitte) seemed to be appreciated. Fortunately my wife is reasonably fluent in Spanish, so our time in Spain was made easier, though she would laugh with the locals at my lack of Spanish. :/
    – FreeMan
    Feb 3 at 15:59
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    Many years ago while staying in a hotel in Paris I noticed that the door to my room was sticking. While trying to explain this to the desk clerk, I completely blanked on the word for "pull". But I was speaking and in mid-sentence, so I had to come up with something in an instant. Over the clerk's shoulder was the door to the street with a sign reading "pousser" for "Push" so I said "pouller grand" which I'm pretty sure means I told him I couldn't open my door unless I used a big chicken. The door was fixed when I came back so I guess the message got through. Feb 3 at 17:10

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It doesn't matter where you go in the world, the locals are pleased when an obvious foreigner makes an effort to be polite in the few words they know. (Even France, these days.)

But as soon as it is clear that it's only a few words they will then switch to English (or German, depending where you are!). Now you have to be polite and stay in English. The waiter is not being paid to help you practice your rudimentary language skills.

If you make a fool of yourself by using the wrong word or pronouncing it wrongly, don't worry, they may laugh at you, and you laugh with them. This brightens up everybody's day. They are still very pleased you took the trouble to try.

I have lived in Germany for more than 30 years, and I still make mistakes...

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Feb 4 at 13:48
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Personally I prefer speaking English if my conversational partner isn't reasonably fluent in my other language. "hello", "thank you" & "beer" are always fine as they show some respect for the host culture.

But unless you are fairly fluent and without too much of accent, it's much less work for me if you stay in English.

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    Yes. But some of those foreigners stay in the country, even if it wasn't necessarily planned from the beginning. And 5 years from now, they're still fluent monolinguists. Feb 3 at 17:06
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    On the flip side, if two people each know a fair amount of each other's language, but neither is fluent in the other's language, having each speak the language in which the other is fluent will avoid the need for the people to guess at each other's range of vocabulary.
    – supercat
    Feb 3 at 23:18
  • “Beer”? That may be a good way to appreciate the host culture in Germany or Czechia. Not sure if it also works as well in Saudi Arabia... Feb 4 at 7:19
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    @leftaroundabout: I'm aware of that. Beer is just easier to type then "culturally appropriate reference to a socially acceptable means of food or drink based interaction"
    – Hilmar
    Feb 4 at 22:33
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Usually in countries where knowledge of English is good, and my knowledge of the local language is limited, I generally learn (and use) "hello", "thank you", "goodbye", "do you speak English?" (even if the answer to this is 99 times out of 100, "of course", it feels polite to ask before getting into something more involved in English, like trying to sort out a complicated mistake in a hotel booking), and that's about it, maybe an extremely simple order at a bar e.g. "two beers please".

When I was in Finland a few years ago this seemed to be entirely well-received and caused no problems.

The one time I tried to go beyond this (buying two tram tickets to the city centre), I accidentally asked for one instead of two. My spouse & I both then got on without the driver saying anything more, so I suspect she just silently worked out I wanted two and charged me for the correct tickets, but it's possible she charged me for one, and when she realised I thought I'd bought two decided it wasn't worth saying anything. It didn't actually cause any problems, but it's certainly a situation where it could have done and which would have been avoided if I'd just stuck to doing only basic phatic expressions in Finnish.

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  • NB: the only country in the EU where 99% speak English is Ireland (source). In Finland this is about 70%.
    – gerrit
    Feb 4 at 8:47
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    It may be 'only' 70% but you are much less likely to meet the other 30%, as those are often old people outside the touristy areas as well as young children.
    – Willeke
    Feb 4 at 10:04
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    I was thinking along the lines of Willeke, even if only 70% of all Finns describe themselves as speaking English, the Finns in areas you're likely to be in as a tourist will likely have disproportionately many who do, especially those in jobs where you're more likely to interact with them (rather than the average Finn on the street). But also, crucially, we don't actually need the Finns to speak English well enough to describe themselves as speaking English, we just need them to speak better English than we speak Finnish, which is a much lower standard
    – Tristan
    Feb 4 at 11:39
  • @Willeke: ~40 years ago, when driving with my father as a kid near Copenhagen, we took a wrong turn and ended up in the middle of a field. On this field was an old farmer plowing on a tractor. We stopped him and asked in simple English how to get back to the road. He answered with an English that I still remember after all these years. Sure this is one anecdata but once in a while you get to be surprised :)
    – WoJ
    Feb 4 at 11:54
  • @WoJ, I do agree with you, you can find people speaking foreign languages everywhere in most countries, also outside the cities. It is just a little less likely.
    – Willeke
    Feb 4 at 13:54
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Please try the local language whenever you can.

70% of Finns speak English. That number is probably higher in Helsinki and lower in rural areas. It's very likely higher with people working in the tourist industry, but if you travel in rural areas and address older people, you cannot safely assume everybody understands and speaks English. Maybe some speak a bit of Swedish, German, or even Russian, or maybe they are monolingual.

I tried to address a Finnish woman in English once (excuse me, do you speak English?). She shook her head and ran away. This was in a rural area in the far north of Finland (near Kilpisjärvi). I don't know how she would have replied if I had said the equivalent in Finnish (I can't), Swedish (might have worked), or German or Russian (probably not),

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  • Any comments for the downvotes?
    – gerrit
    Feb 4 at 13:57
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I don’t expect it to be considered annoying or anything, but consider the risk of using very limited skills - a mispronounced or mixed up word can easily end with something embarrassing or offensive, and they may or may not realize that it was an accident.

Stick with using the language in situations where you know you can use it, or with people you know better already, and your effort is typically seen as a positive thing.

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    As a Finn, I'll have to disagree with this: we all know our language is impossible, so foreigners who make an effort will be lavished with praise, and it's exceedingly unlikely you would accidentally offend someone. Just don't expect to carry on a conversation beyond the "hei, kiitos" level, since everybody will immediately switch to English. Feb 3 at 6:20
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    @lambshaanxy stating that everybody will switch to English is an exaggerated. Just 70% of Finns speak English. That number is probably higher in Helsinki and lower in rural areas, so the chance that someone cannot switch to English is real. The one time I addressed someone in Finland with do you speak English? (an old woman near Kilpisjärvi), she shook her head and ran away.
    – gerrit
    Feb 4 at 8:37
  • @gerrit: Same experience with bus drivers in Oulu, who didn't speak English but thankfully German... Making the effort to try to speak the host country's language is always rewarded, especially if the other party is less fluent in your common language: it shares the translation/accent issues more fairly between the two of you!
    – tricasse
    Feb 4 at 13:59
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It depends on what, exactly, you mean in this case.

Introducing yourself in the local language and politely asking to continue the conversation in English (or some other language that you may share with the person in question) is generally OK, and may even result in much more polite treatment by the locals, but at that point you should stick to English baring the particular cases I mention below.

Beyond that, the only times that code-switching seems to be reasonably universally acceptable when talking with strangers and lacking full fluency in both languages involved are meta-linguistic discussions (that is, discussing the language itself), using local place names (which will often also get you more polite responses), or when there is simply no proper translation for the intended concept in the language being spoke (this is part of how loanwords develop).

Code-switching to resolve ambiguity (for example, when the local language distinguishes between concepts that English does not distinguish between) may be considered acceptable, or may not be considered acceptable (when I’ve been traveling and actually done this, it’s seemed to be more acceptable among younger individuals).

Randomly peppering your speech with interjections from the local language though is generally not appreciated, and will usually reinforce that you’re a tourist (which is almost always a bad thing when traveling).

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    If you are learning a language it is common and acceptable to use it to your ability and try a little beyond. That is how you learn to speak a language.
    – Willeke
    Feb 3 at 14:58
  • @Willeke If the other person is willing to do so, yes, that’s great. Just assuming they are fine with it though is generally construed in most parts of the world as rude. Feb 3 at 17:40

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