Svenska kulturfonden (Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland) annually organises an international seminar on language minority issues. This year’s seminar took place on 13 November 2012 in Brussels and the focus was on the linguistic majority: “It is important that the members of society representing the linguistic majority not only understand the position of the minority but also act accordingly” (a quote from the seminar programme). The keynote speaker at the seminar was Martti Ahtisaari, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former president of Finland. In this article, I will concentrate on the speakers who dealt with Swedish as minority language in Finland.
Martti Ahtisaari, who many remember from resolving conflicts in different corners of the world, such as Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Central Asia, is also working on minority language issues. In his peace mediating work, respect and consideration for local (minority) languages plays a major part. In 2010 he was nominated chairman of the action plan to strengthen the national languages in Finland. He reminded us of the fact that although only 5.4 % of Finland’s population have Swedish as their mother tongue, legally they are not a minority because according to the constitution they have the right to use their mother tongue everywhere. However, even though their rights are in many ways respected, there are problems in the implementation of legislation, particularly in public services, such as health care and the court of law. That’s why a systematically implemented action plan is needed, as well as concrete tools to put it into action. There is an economic cost of maintaining minority languages, so naturally the country in question will have to be willing and able to invest in it. Ahtisaari pointed out that even if each country has a different language situation, we can still draw comparisons between minority languages in different countries and learn from each other. “We need more egalitarian policies. Europe needs an Index of Good Governance, similar to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. We should perhaps invite people to the Nordic countries to see what we’re doing. Encouragement is, however, always better than naming and shaming.” He also said that many policies can be strengthened from the grass root level: Why do Swedish speaking Finns often switch to Finnish when a Finnish speaker joins the conversation? Defend your own language!
We were also introduced best practices in the public sector. One of them was the case of bilingual health care in Finland, which was presented by Aki Lindén, Director at Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa. He introduced the language programme of the district, which uses language ambassadors, grants to personnel who use Swedish at work and language courses to personnel. He said they were receiving good feedback so far but one of the problems is to find doctors to match patients in highly specialized areas.
There was also an example from Finland among the best practices from the private sector. It concerned Swedish service in Finland. Assistant Professor Jonas Holmqvist from Bordeaux Management School enlightened us with examples which go to show that many international companies which are multilingual elsewhere are monolingual in Finland. According to him, Swedish speaking Finns should demand service in Swedish themselves. In Finland political considerations don’t play a major role unlike in Belgium, for example, which means that companies don’t lose customers even if they don’t use minority languages.
Again, it all boils down to individual actions, combined with community which engages its citizens; good schooling where ideologies are exchanged; political goodwill and sometimes some good fortune, too. What was most remarkable though was the fact that everyone seemed to agree that what happens on the ground is most important, after all. So, start acting for minority languages today!