[lg policy] Debates over the status of the Finnish and Swedish languages in Finland tend to ignore the fact that Finland has developed into a truly multilingual country.

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 12 14:25:34 UTC 2013

Debates over the status of the Finnish and Swedish languages in Finland
tend to ignore the fact that Finland has developed into a truly
multilingual country.
Blog Admin <http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/author/brownsa/>

* <http://wp.me/p2MmSR-3wp#Author>Finland has two official languages:
Swedish and Finnish. The status of both languages has recently generated
debate within the country, particularly over the mandatory teaching of
Swedish in Finnish language schools. **Pasi Saukkonen
*assesses the current controversy, noting that the situation within the
country has changed markedly since Finland’s language policy was developed
in the early 20th century. A far greater number of languages are now spoken
by people living in Finland, and individuals are also more likely to have
more than one mother tongue. This greater linguistic plurality is beginning
to put the country’s bilingual policies under pressure.*

When Finland became independent, in 1917, the country was declared
officially bilingual. Swedish, spoken by the numerical minority, had been
the language of public administration and higher education, and the normal
domestic language of the upper classes for centuries. The majority
vernacular, Finnish, had received fully equal status only some years before
independence. The language policy solution was a compromise that proved
sustainable despite many extraordinary features. In contrast to many
officially bilingual or multilingual states, Finland is not a federal
state. Unilingual territorial autonomy has been limited to the small and
peripheral Åland islands.

Finnish language policy is a combination of a territoriality principle and
a personality principle. The Finnish constitution recognises both Finnish
and Swedish as national languages. People belonging to both language groups
have the right to use their own language before courts of law and other
authorities, and to receive official documents in that language. Public
authorities must provide for the cultural and societal needs of
Finnish-speakers and Swedish-speakers on an equal basis. The language of
many welfare services is determined by the language status of local
communities. Municipalities can be either unilingual Finnish or Swedish, or
bilingual, depending on the size of the minority language group.

Credit: Mirari Erdoiza (CC BY 2.0)

The 20th century is an era in European history of both ethnic conflict and
linguistic strife, and of slow but unquestionable improvement in the
cultural rights of minorities. In this context, the Finnish model was
remarkably stable and peaceful. There were some ruthless years in the
interwar period, but since then there have been hardly any serious
disputes. Violent outbursts are extremely rare. When the Finnish welfare
state was constructed, the language policy model was accommodated to it
without changing the basic foundations of the system. Finnish bilingualism
has been the object of much attention abroad, and has frequently been used
as an example of a successful language policy arrangement. The New York
Times once went as far as mentioning the Swedish-speakers of Finland as the
‘most pampered’ minority in the world.

Not everything was in order, however. Canadian researcher Kenneth D. McRae
aptly remarked at the turn of the Millennium that in the Finnish case the
problem was not language conflict, but linguistic instability. The
Swedish-speakers were not so much suffering from intergroup prejudices, or
hostility, but from slow diminishing, quiet attrition. The absolute size of
the Swedish-speaking community had decreased only slightly, but the change
was more dramatic as a share of the whole population. In less than a
century, the proportion fell from almost 15 per cent to close to 5 per
cent. Reasons behind this development can be found in lower fertility
rates, emigration, and language change. Furthermore, domestic migration has
turned many formerly unilingual Swedish regions bilingual, and many
bilingual regions into areas clearly dominated by the majority language.
Access to Swedish language public services has deteriorated, little by

The new Language Act which came into force in 2004 was supposed to mend
apparent shortcomings. With hindsight, however, one can conclude that the
reform laid bare more structural problems and brought increased
dissatisfaction towards the system, both among Swedish-speakers and
Finnish-speakers, into the daylight. There have always been some jingoistic
groups arguing in favour of Finland becoming officially unilingual.
Nevertheless, their number was small, and their arguments had little
significance to the wider public debate. An issue that has recently raised
more disagreement is the status of the Swedish language as an obligatory
subject in all Finnish-language schools, including in areas where there are
hardly any Swedish-speakers at all. Opponents to this arrangement have
vigorously and skillfully used the Internet to express their criticism.
Some prominent politicians and well-established organisations have also
started to question the rationality of the policy.

At the same time, dissatisfaction among Swedish-speakers has increased due
to the perception that new legislation cannot bring about notable
improvements. On the contrary, public administration reforms that often
include centralising tendencies, for example, have caused linguistic domain
losses for Swedish-speakers.  The Swedish People’s Party, traditionally
covering a safe majority of the Swedish-speaking electorate, has been urged
to better safeguard linguistic rights.

The linguistic situation has now become tense, and one can observe rival
conceptions of the nation and of language rights. However, the situation
has also become more complex than it was in previous decades: something
which both sides of the new linguistic strife tend to ignore. The Finnish
system was built upon the idea that there were two language communities in
the country, and that people could be easily divided into either
Finnish-speakers or Swedish-speakers. Linguistic groups could also be
regarded as ethnic communities: as something approaching ‘nations within
the nation’.

Contemporary Finland, however, has become a multilingual society, mainly as
a result of immigration. In 2011, there were 36 language groups comprising
more than a thousand speakers. The groups of Russian-speakers,
Estonian-speakers and Somali-speakers have grown remarkably. With about
60,000 speakers Russian has become by far the largest language after the
two official languages, and it is still growing.

Another development that brings complexity into the current system is the
increasing multilingualism at the individual level. Because of inter-ethnic
marriages, time spent abroad, and the maintenance of minority languages
while learning the majority language, lots of people nowadays master at
least two languages completely, and identify with two or more linguistic
groups. Official linguistic registration, upon which Finnish language
policy is constructed, however, only allows individuals to indicate one
mother tongue. *De facto* multilingualism of the society, and *de
facto *bilingualism
of individuals, are thus not recognised by the legal framework of Finnish
bilingualism. A solution to the above mentioned dissatisfaction and
irritation among both Swedish-speakers and Finnish-speakers should
therefore be sought against the background of the new linguistic realities.
A complete re-thinking of Finnish society is required.

Increasing linguistic plurality and complexity are not, of course, solely
Finnish phenomena. Many societies have become multilingual, and this
development is likely to continue even when linguistic assimilation is
factored into the equation. The future development of the Finnish case
might provide Europe with interesting lessons on how to cope with
linguistic diversity.

*Please read our comments policy before

*Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of
EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of

*Shortened URL for this post: **http://bit.ly/ZzFYzI
* <http://bit.ly/ZzFYzI>

* *_________________________________

*About the author*

*Pasi Saukkonen **– Finnish Foundation for Cultural Policy Research*
Pasi Saukkonen is a Senior Researcher at the Foundation for Cultural Policy
Research (CUPORE) in Helsinki, Finland.


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