Absence of a word

While reading an Atlantic article on the Finnish education system, I came across this fascinating bit of information: there is no word in Finnish for “accountability.” According to Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility:

Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.

There is a profound cultural statement contained in that missing word. With its massive tort system and litigious society, the U.S. is all about accountability. Responsibility, not so much.

The article is worth a read, as it dissects one of the most startling aspects of Finland’s successful educational system: it was never designed for excellence. It was designed for equality. Yet somehow, that equality led to consistent academic achievement. Imagine that.

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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20 Responses to Absence of a word

  1. Inge says:

    I actually looked it up because to me accountability and responsibility are also the same. Sadly they are both translated similar in dutch. Verantwoording and verantwoordelijkheid (and if you look them up, they mean each other) Hence the question. What is the difference?

    • oregon expat says:

      You might get a lot of different answers to that question, because clearly it varies between cultures. In the American version, I would say that responsibility is something one claims for oneself: “I am responsible for X.” Or, it’s assigned by a parent or employer. Either way, it means you accept the consequences of a choice, decision, or course of action.

      Accountability is something imposed on someone else: “She is accountable for X.” It’s closely related, but not quite the same. People are held accountable for consequences when they fail to take responsibility for them.

      The US court system is all about imposing accountability, because as a culture we’re not so good at accepting responsibility. A classic example: many Americans will stridently declare their right to own guns. But the percentage of those who take responsibility for that ownership — by learning proper care, handling, and safety, by storing the weapons out of reach of children, etc. — is considerably less than 100. Hence the number of court cases imposing accountability on people involved in accidental shootings.

  2. Paulo says:

    Indeed, “being held accountable” seems to be at least a characteristic English language construction and definitely a very common American concept. In Portuguese there is no translation for “accountability” either, although in the “public opinion courts” the word applied is usually “culpa” (guilt) and “culpados” and not so much “responsibility”, as if the latter didn’t convey enough how reproachable a given behavior is deemed.
    There are also the usual nuances in what concerns “responsibility”, such as “responsabilidade moral”, “responsabilidade política” and the common “assumir a responsabilidade” – meaning that someone is noble enough to take the fall for something he doesn’t quite own. Which might be a way of saying they shouldn’t be accountable for it… and may open up an interesting debate. Maybe Portugal is half way between Finland and the U.S. in matters of accountability (although I think it’s much worse than that – and “phenomena” like the once all-pervasive Catholic Church, the indulgences, a certain hypocrisy in the concession of multiple instances of “pardons”, etc… may play a role in the national psyche. I have argued many times that Catholic countries have not been impacted by specific aspects of the… Lutheran, Calvinistic, Episcopalian societies in the North… but I digress.)

    It does strike a difference with the U.S. and not only linguistically. It is in fact also a cultural and legal trait. The weight of lawyers and litigation seems to have pushed the burden of responsibility to the courts. I’m definitely with you in what concerns the infamous “gun rights”, and of course it gets worse.

    Thanks for the article link. I skimmed through the NYT one when it came out, and had the impression it was in the same line as one the Smithsonian had published some time before:

  3. M. says:

    I’ve read comments with a great interest, because there is also no word “accountability” in Polish.

    The article is also very interesting. Thank you for sharing 🙂
    When reading it I had a feeling that the source of funds covering expenses of any education system is also very important. In Finland they are paid by the whole nation, in the shape of very high taxes. In US they’re paid by individual students. mostly.

    • oregon expat says:

      To clarify, there’s a big difference in the US between K-12 schools and universities. K-12 schools are publicly funded, by the states. Parents can choose to pay stratospheric tuition to send their kids to private school, but the public schools are paid by taxes. And, since “taxes” is now a dirty evil word in the US, the funding for schools has been steadily declining (along with teachers’ salaries, arts and music programs, etc.). Which means more parents who can afford to choose private schools, resulting in an ever-increasing educational gap between the rich and everyone else.

      Universities also come in both private and public flavors, but here the difference is not between expensive and free. Instead it’s between “outrageously, unaffordably” expensive and “affordable with a 10-year-loan” expensive. Public universities are subsidized by state taxes, but those subsidies have been radically declining over the years, which means tuition has been rising. When I went to the University of Oregon, a public state university, I paid around $1,500 per year in tuition and fees. 25 years later that price has gone up to $9,300 per year. That’s $37,200 for a 4-year baccalaureate degree — and in the US, that’s relatively cheap.

      • Paulo says:

        I recently found a chart that I honestly haven’t checked for absolute accuracy but which depicts a U.S. trend. I thought the “health business” was bad enough, but the “education business” here seems to be on a parallel path.

        I wasn’t able to track down the original link so I will link to my facebook “post” (sorry for that) : http://on.fb.me/uNEKIV

        I did find another interesting and… ever so slightly related chart on the same site I got the first one from:

        American exceptionality.

      • M. says:

        Thank you very much for the explanation. This is very interesting to hear about this subject from the person who experienced studying in US herself.

        Am I right assuming that parents prefer to send their kids to private paid schools, if they can afford it, because they believe that private education will profit their kids more, by better quality or higher social status or connections?

        Following an information about Occupy Wall Street Movement, I’ve read an article about student loan debt in US.
        (with a scary graphic http://thinkprogress.org/special/2011/12/12/387823/student-loan-debt-has-ballooned-since-1990/ )

        These informations are worrisome. We had very simlar system of school funding to the one in Finland (aka no private schools), but in late 80′ we had to change it, because any system from old ‘communistic’ times was considered to be bad :(. This way private schooling was introduced to Poland. The system is a little complicated, because a free education on every level and universal and equal access to education is guaranteed by our constitution, but the result after 20 years is that public (ie free) and not private schools (especially universities) are considered the best. So ironically you can be well educated for free, but you have to pay to get a poor education here :D. Because tutition and fees in private universities are nowhere as high as in US, still about half of a school-age population gets Master degree, what IMHO is amazing number. But if we follow US path any further, I can’t see these numbers being still high.

        • oregon expat says:

          Fascinating! And, similar in some ways to the Portuguese system, which also has both free and private (often Catholic) schools. In the elementary and secondary levels, it’s often better to go private (depending on your school district, of course), but at the university level, private usually means a poorer education. The reason? Public universities have more stringent entry requirements. But as long as you can pay, any private university will take you.

  4. Lilaine says:

    A most interesting topic, thank you. 🙂
    From where I stand, It seems many things in the US are estimated in terms of accountability(as in $bank account$) and there’s probably not going to be any way anybody(certainly not politicians or lawyers) is going to take on the responsibility for that, for it seems to be, indeed, a cultural and economic evolution and actual cornerstone of the current American society.

    In Finland, their open and financially accessible school system just seem to favor and put in practice emulation, individual value recognition(but not cult), resources and methods sharing, instead of encouraging competition(between students, teachers, schools), elitism(in many ways: individual, financial, technical), profit(to very few) oriented management and creating a monstrous inequality in the population’s access to knowledge and education.

    In France, we also have nuances on the responsibility word. In the way we use it, first.
    Etre responsable (taking on the individual responsibility) is different from être tenu pour responsable (being accountable for).
    Then, as in Portuguese, we have different kinds of responsibility(civil(toward society), moral, legal(age and mental status determine this one), and maybe one or two others I can’t see now).
    We also have the chivalrous “endosser/assumer la responsabilité”, a priori or a posteriori, for something one doesn’t(or didn’t) own/control the doing.
    As for our school system, I’m afraid it tends to evolve into something resembling the american system. We’re not there, yet, but we’re headed in that direction, Universities having been open to private funding(with all that it entails) recently. I don’t know about the annual fees, there must be some, but far from those in the US though.
    Private schools have been co-existing peacefully with public ones for a very long time in the French educative system. They share, if not pedagogic methods, at least education programs and exams (up to the High School graduation, at least). Then there are those technical/professional private schools or organisms that teach specifics trades(some deliver diplomas that are agreed by the French education system).
    Well, that’s all. I hope I wasn’t too boring. 🙂
    Bon bout d’an à tous et toutes.

    • Paulo says:

      Merci, Lilaine. Bonne année et bonne santée!

      Just a short side note:

      I’m very new to this blog and the comments this post triggered would alone be enough to make me come back often.
      Dutch, Polish (*), French and… Oregon-expat’s perspectives on a Finnish subject. Yes, I tend to still marvel at things like these. I was already “old” when the internet came to be.
      I can volunteer that my own perspective is of a Portuguese expat in Oregon, which makes this blog extraordinarily attractive to me.
      So… regards from Portland and a great 2012 for everybody.

      (*) My wife is Polish, but she’s not “M.”
      I think. 🙂

      • Lilaine says:

        I’m very new to this blog and the comments this post triggered would alone be enough to make me come back often. Dutch, Polish (*), French and… Oregon-expat’s perspectives on a Finnish subject.

        I had the exact same reaction as yours when I first came to visit this extraordinary blog, clicking on the link provided on another most exceptional site 🙂
        There is a wonderful voyage to do from the first post of this blog to the most recent one, and I’ve not even “visited” the half of it, yet…gotta find the time. 😉
        Just wait one or two days, you’ll certainly have the chance to learn the New Year greetings in a great number of languages… 🙂
        I won’t say my French ones before the year is started, though. I’m a bit superstitious…

    • oregon expat says:

      Liliane, thank you for this etymological input. And may I extend my sympathies that your educational system is evolving the American direction. I never realized that graduating from university without crippling student loans was *not* the global norm until I moved to Europe.

      • Lilaine says:

        Ah, I didn’t realize I was being etymological…? 😮
        Thanks for your sympathetic thoughts. Many students do have loans, but they are not crippling for the most part.

  5. Michele says:

    A very interesting post… I taught an undergraduate course for a few years entitled “Accountability, Responsibility and Control in Organisations”. In it, we differentiated between the two as follows: accountability is about accounting for what went wrong – it’s about the past. Responsibility is about thinking of the right things to do before the fact – it’s about the future. Now, I teach leadership – and we talk a lot about responsibility being more important than accountability because leaders should think about the right things to do before they do them as opposed to working out who should take the blame for what, once somethign blows up.

    Perhaps, in a country with many lawyers (both real and fictional), the concept of accountability has become more entrenched in the public psyche – who is to blame for what becomes a key element of public and private discourse. Perhaps that is what also makes it difficult to make changes – everyone is busy figuring out who to blame as opposed to figuring out the consequences of the decisions they make today, for the future. And, they’re also often busy figuring out how to escape accountability should things go wrong.

    I hope that, one day, we will figure out – collectively – that responsibility is more important than accountability. Then, maybe we’ll have no more oil spills, financial meltdowns, homeless people, extinct species, and a whole bunch of other things that are really due to accountability trumping responsibility when decisions are made.

    • oregon expat says:

      Your definitions remind me of something a mentor taught me way back in the beginning of my career: “Be proactive, not reactive.” It’s always better to prevent a disaster than to be good at cleaning one up.

      It wasn’t until years later that I realized my mentor was decidedly in the minority for having such a philosophy. People who are good at damage control tend to get a lot more respect (and higher pay), while people who are good at preventing damage in the first place tend to get overlooked. After all, what did they do? One is so much easier to quantify than the other.

      Like you, I wish responsibility were more common. It’s so much better than accountability.

      • Inge says:

        I’ve read through all the comments in order to get a feel for the difference, since i truly lack it.

        But the feeling i’m left with is that accountability is invented. Let me explain. Here, in Belgium, you can do stuff wrong (or forget to do stuff) but it’s still your responsibility. It’s not because you neglected it, that you’re not responsible. And that is why you have to pay for it in court if it gets that far. Responsibility.

        Accountability sounds like a word that is invented not to say responsible. And by saying something else, it feels like less heavy than responsibility. I mean, you’re accountable for this oil spill or you’re responsible for that oil spill. Responsible sounds much heavier. (well to my ears) It feels like accountability leaves the option of saying: ‘well the court holds me accountable but…’ which again pushes away responsibility.

        • Lilaine says:

          If you consider responsibility as an abstract concept, and accountability as the concrete expression/application, would it be easier?
          And I agree with you that people might tend to accept accountability as a way of escaping their responsibility…

        • oregon expat says:

          This is an astute observation. The word “accountability” may not have been invented for that purpose, but in today’s culture it seems to have taken on that meaning.

    • Malkor says:

      That would be the day our species overcomes human nature. It’s natural to ignore inconvenient things and take the easy way.

      Maybe someday and with the help of a miracle…

      Addendum to your list: INES7 accidents – a pretty name for the unthinkable,

  6. Stuart Buck says:

    Here are some linguists and native Finnish speakers discussing the (somewhat odd) claim that “there’s no word for accountability”: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3678 And more discussion of the same (odd) claim made as to other languages: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2920

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