Humanities Blog

Alpo Seppo Santeri Honkapohja considers it possible that he will work at Tallinn University until retirement

This fall semester, Alpo Seppo Santeri Honkapohja, who was an undergraduate at the University of Helsinki, teaches English at Tallinn University's School of Humanities. We asked him to talk about his academic career so far and his future plans.

Alpo Seppo Santeri Honkapohja

What has been your academic activity so far?

It's getting increasingly complex and exhausting trying to explain my academic background! I've been an academic nomad of sorts for the past twelve years... 

I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Helsinki in Finland. As a late-stage undergrad, I got a job as a student assistant at the Research Unit for Variation, Contacts and Change in English (VARIENG), which was a designated Centre of Excellence from 1999 to 2011 and was funded by the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. I also worked as a English-as-a-second-language teacher in Finland from 2004 to 2006 and, part-time, from 2006 to 2009, while beginning to work on a PhD in Helsinki.

In 2011, a Helsinki colleague of mine, Olga Timofeeva, managed to land an assistant professorship at the University of Zurich. Since I was one of the few individuals at Varieng working on historical multilingualism, she asked me if I'd be interested in joining her project in Switzerland as a research assistant. I was happy to jump at the opportunity, especially since the VARIENG unit was coming to its end and things were about to get very competitive in Helsinki with a lot of unemployed linguists - historical linguists in particular - competing for the same jobs.

I ended up spending the following six years in Switzerland, ultimately defending my PhD at the University of Zurich.

After my six years in Switzerland (2011-2017), I've had two postdoctoral research fellowships. First, four years at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland (2017-2021), followed by a two-year EU-funded Marie Curie fellowship at the University of Oslo in Norway (2021-2023).

What brought you to teach English in Tallinn?

Most importantly, it's a permanent, tenured, academic position. When a friend forwarded me the job advertisement, I thought: why not?! 

I know Tallinn is a great city and Estonia is an up-and-coming, very digitally-minded country. I'm originally from the greater Helsinki area, which means I've visited Tallinn something like 5-10 times over the years. My first visit to Tallinn was on a school trip back in 1994 and the place has changed so much since then. I remember thinking back then... this is a nice city, I wonder what it would be like to live here.

As a linguist, I've also been keen to learn Estonian. While I have studied several languages, all of them, apart from my native Finnish, have been Indo-European.

What are the characteristics of English language teaching at a time when the use and norms of this language in different countries are very variable?

That's a very multifaceted question. I find English to be a very interesting language to teach and research. Since it's become the most important international lingua franca of our time, it's of course extremely relevant. One perspective, that I like to bring up is the recent interesting work in English as a Lingua Franca (or ELF). This concept recognizes that there are more second-language users of English than first-language speakers in the world. For instance, English is the default language, if Estonians communicate with - say - individuals from Dutch or Turkish backgrounds.

Much has been said and written about the effects of the English language on languages with a smaller user base. But how much have other languages influenced modern English?

English has never been shy about borrowing words. It's been influenced so much by all the languages that it has come to contact with that it is a very atypical German language. No other Germanic language has lost so many of its word endings and replaced them with a more word-order-based grammatical system. There are also layers upon layers of Latin (adapt, exist, celebrate, etc.) and French loans (excuse me, pardon, pork, mutton). The British Empire was also not exactly reserved about borrowing words from the various languages it encountered, from Native American languages (chocolate) to Chinese (tea), Hindi (shampoo) and Australian Aboriginal languages (boomerang). 

How long do you plan to continue your teaching work in Tallinn?

Quite possibly until retirement. I am now well into my forties and very tired of the academic nomad lifestyle I've been leading. While it has been interesting living in different countries and seeing the world, it is also frustrating to leave the life you've built yourself behind and start again from square one. I wouldn't mind never having to do it again.

I've always thought Tallinn was a great city and it seems to be growing more diverse with each visit. It's also conveniently close to Helsinki, where my closest family and oldest friends are all based - making it quite easy to go on a weekend visit if there is something happening. The quickest ferries are only two hours, which is about the same as if I had a job in another Finnish city like Tampere or Turku. I believe the distance between Tallinn and Tartu is about two hours as well.