Testing the waters

News article

Wolfgang Ludwig moved to Finland from Germany in the late 1980s. He learnt the language, started a family and bought a wooden boat. He says learning the language is the best way of integrating into a culture.

Wolfgang Ludwig’s wooden boat is moored at a jetty right in front of his house.

– I bought this boat in Helsinki. My condition was that the seller would sail the boat with me to Kotka. The trip from Helsinki to Kotka takes 8–10 hours by boat, and in that time the owner taught me whatever navigation and boating skills he could. To ‘pass the test’ I had to moor the boat – and I nailed it!

After this initial intensive course, Ludwig earned the necessary inshore and coastal navigation certificates, and now he commands his boat with the same ease as any native of Kotka. Ludwig came to Finland from Germany in 1988, and is still on his journey.

– I never made a conscious decision to stay. I just never went back.

The scales fall

Ludwig came to Finland to complete his non-military service in the middle of October 1988. His mother is Finnish and he has dual citizenship. While he had spent summer holidays at his grandparents’ farm in Southeastern Finland, moving to Finland was still a huge step into the unknown.

– I was twenty, I couldn’t speak Finnish. Being German was at that time quite exotic to many Finns. As was opting for the non-military service instead of the military one, and not in a positive sense.

Summers in rural Finland had instilled in him a certain image of Finland. His immediate community was socially very active.

– My granny’s house was always full of people and noise. Someone would just drop by and coffee and cake would be on the table regardless of the time of day.

However, during his non-military service, he quickly learnt that Finland was not always that cosy and welcoming. He met his friends at bars and cafés rather than at their houses.

– You can’t just spontaneously drop by, he says, finding it a little sad.

The picture became even less rosy with the initial two-month training period for his non-military service. It was held in October and November in a small village near Jyväskylä.

– A god-forsaken place. You took a turn at the crossroads and ended up literally in the middle of nowhere.

In addition to darkness and freezing weather, communication was difficult.

– I spent two months in a completely Finnish environment. I didn’t understand a word during the classes, but attendance was mandatory. I just sat there looking out of the window watching the trees grow.

– We practised how to put out a burning oil barrel. We also learnt how to correctly fold the Finnish flag. That was all I learnt in two months.

Fortunately, Ludwig also has some happy memories of that period. One of his course mates was an opera singer. He would stand on the table singing in their sauna get-togethers.

– That gave a certain luxury to it.

Children as language teachers

After the initial training period, Ludwig joined a kindergarten in Porvoo to complete his service. There, all situations had to be handled in Finnish. Sometimes he did not understand what the children were saying, so he had to ask them to try and explain themselves.

– That put them in a totally new position. They were the ones instructing an adult, not the other way around.

Ludwig did not study Finnish systematically, but he learnt to speak it fluently working with children.

– Children’s grammar is perfect, but vocabulary is still limited. And the communication is always about the situation at hand. Even if I didn’t understand every word, I could guess quite a lot.

He took out his grammar books when the children were having their nap. He has since attended some courses at the Finnish Adult Education Centre and when taking his degree in engineering at Otaniemi.

– You can’t just pick up Finnish as you go along. It would help, if people took the trouble of correcting me, although it might also be annoying. However, unless my mistakes are pointed out to me, I won’t notice them.

Why not just speak English?

– The only way to be truly integrated into Finnish culture is to speak the language. Speaking English is not enough, Ludwig says, encouraging newcomers to learn the language and keep speaking it.

– I was simply parroting the words, until I became more fluent. In fact, I’ve learnt Portuguese with the same method.

Ludwig tells a story about his American friend who lives in Helsinki. He arrived in the mid-1990s and still speaks no Finnish.

– At some point, your integration process will come to a halt. No matter how long you stay here, to understand the mentality, you have to understand the language. English will take you only so far. You always lose something in translation.

Learning is the key to a successful career

Ludwig studied energy technology at Helsinki University of Technology (present-day Aalto University) in Otaniemi. While at the university, he worked summers in Germany. On a couple of occasions, he decided to test how he could do his job more efficiently.

– An older worker came to me and said I should slow down and take it easy. At that rate, all the rest would have to start working just as fast.

Ludwig wrote his thesis on a commission for VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, which he then joined as a researcher after his graduation. After five years at VTT, he moved on to do energy technology research at Helsinki University of Technology and, after that, to the industry as a supplier of pulp technology.

– I have spent fifteen years working in energy technology as a researcher and in the industry. Professionally, I have been involved in a wide range of things but now I’d love to do something more interactive.

Ludwig is currently looking for a new job.

– I’ve been studying business and economics at Aalto Open University. I have a solid engineering background, but I want to branch out from my niche. I’m interested in international trade, finance and business strategies.

Ludwig has always been confident that he can learn what needs to be learnt for a new task.

– I wouldn’t reject a job applicant just because he or she does not have some specific skill. What is much more important is to see an ability to find, learn and apply new knowledge.

Granny choir and bloke’s yoga

Ludwig moved to Kotka because of a job. That job no longer exists, but he has created strong ties with the community. In addition to boating, he is an active member of a local choir.

– I browsed through the course guide of the Kotka adult education centre and thought it might be nice to sing. I went for my first class, opened the door and looked in. Nothing but old ladies! They all turned to look at me, until one of them said, “Come on in, you’re in the right place”.

His latest interest is bloke’s yoga. He is taking a year off from singing, but he remembers the choir fondly.

– It was great fun! The girls and me.

Wolfgang Ludwig

  • Age: 45 years, Master of Science in Energy Technology
  • From Solingen, Germany
  • Lives in Kotka with his partner and two children
  • Interests: his own wooden boat, photography, canoeing, choir singing and yoga

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