E.U. Fights to Get Everyone Speaking Same Language on Education

In 2002, government leaders of the member states called for “at least two foreign languages to be taught from a very early age,” and in 2005, the Union’s executive body, the European Commission, declared a long-term objective “to increase individual multilingualism until every citizen has practical skills in at least two languages in addition to his or her mother tongue.”

“Learning a foreign language fosters diversity, social inclusion and intercultural dialogue in Europe and beyond,” Dennis Abbott, the European Commission’s spokesman for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, wrote in an email. “But language learning is more than that. In a globalized world, languages are a crucial asset for mobility and jobs, especially for young people.”

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It’s up to the majority

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!

Fourth international meeting of the EDiLiC community

The fourth international meeting of the EDiLiC community (EdiLiC stands for Education et Diversité Linguistique et Culturelle – Linguistic and Cultural Education and Diversity) took place from 16 to 18 July 2012 at the University of Aveiro, Portugal. Since this organisation shares many of the aims of Language Rich Europe, it appropriately included a workshop, presented by Lachlan Mackenzie (ILTEC), about our project and its preliminary results. Lachlan blogs about the conference for LRE:

The conference reflected its commitment to multilingualism by being held in three languages, Portuguese, French and English, without simultaneous interpretation. To avoid any communication difficulties, speakers were required to talk in different languages and to use powerpoints in at least one language other than that used for oral presentation. A ‘good practice’ for sure!

The workshop covered the overall goals of Language Rich Europe, the results achieved so far and the findings for Portugal. The participants came from different countries and backgrounds. Some were primarily concerned with doing academic research into the performance and difficulties of language learners. Others were working on alleviating the linguistic and cultural problems faced by immigrants and other users of minority languages in societies dominated by national languages.

It became clear that Language Rich Europe and its network could provide the members of EDiLiC with ways of joining forces and exchanging experiences with colleagues across our continent. They were very interested in our network as a platform on which to meet, confront and influence those who take the decisions about the language policies that affect our schools, workplaces and public services.

A point that came up very forcefully in the workshop concerned measures for increasing plurilingualism in Europe by fostering mobility for students, teachers and others. In countries with severe economic difficulties like Portugal, insufficient funds are currently available to support mobility to France, the UK and Germany, and the number of candidates for study abroad is falling. The suggestion was made to consider other countries, especially those of Central and Eastern Europe, where living expenses are lower and there are underused opportunities for language-learning. However, it was also felt that the recommended emphasis on mobility can have the effect of actually reinforcing privilege in society, since it is the few students who have the means to travel that stand to gain further from study abroad.

The notion of plurilingualism was welcomed by the workshop as relevant to our schools. Full acceptance of this notion will imply different ways of teaching and learning and will create new relationships between schools and the communities they serve. The point was made that the academic research carried out in many centres is coming up with conclusions that support the lines of intervention recommended by the various European authorities and that a network such as Language Rich Europe can provide a basis for the research findings to become reality. The workshop was a valid starting-point for future collaboration between researchers and policy-makers.

Latvija po mikroinfarkto – Latvia After Heart Failure

In a referendum held on Saturday, 18 February the people of Latvia voted by a clear majority – 77.22 % – against Russian being made the country’s second official language. For this post, Vilma Bačkiūtė, our Language Rich Europe Project Manager in Lithuania, collected articles dealing with the referendum from Lithuanian press in Lithuanian. At the end of the blog post, you will find links to English and Latvian articles.

Latvijoje šeštadienį, vasario 18 d. įvykusiame referendume už antrosios valstybinės kalbos statuso suteikimą rusų kalbai balsavo 22,5 % piliečių, prieš – 77,22 %. Viso balsavo 70,37 % gyventojų.

Latvijos referendumas sulaukė ypatingo žiniasklaidos dėmesio ir Lietuvoje. Visi portalai ir dienraščiai akylai sekė nuotaikas kaimyninėje šalyje. Lietuvos apžvalgininkų, politologų, visuomenės veikėjų ir politikų pasisakymai aiškiai pritaria referendumo rezultatams, kurie labai svarbūs visoms trims Baltijos valstybėms.

Ar referendumas sudėjo taškus ant “i”?

Pasak užsienio reikalų ministro Audronio Ažubalio, “Tai yra Latvijos valstybingumo pasiekimas, kuriuo Latvija gali pagrįstai didžiuotis, o mes, lietuviai, ir visos kitos tautos privalome gerbti”.

Politologą, istoriką Antaną Kulakauską „nustebino tai, kad Latvijos gyventojai šį kartą buvo kaip niekad vieningi. Toks procentas balsavusių prieš rusų kalbos statuso pakeitimą gali reikšti tik tai, kad ne tik etniniai latviai, bet ir vietos rusai suprato, kad referendumas yra tik politikų siekis gauti populiarumą.”

Euro parlamentaro Vytauto Landsbergio nuomone, „To tikrai turbūt nesitikėjo iniciatoriai nei Maskvoje, nei Rygoje. Rezultatai, ko gero, yra priešingi, negu laukta. Matomas latvių ir lojalių Latvijai piliečių susivienijimas vietoje laukto suskaldymo į dvi dalis, kur būtų supriešinti latviai ir ne latviai…“

Rimvydas Valatka savo straipsnyje Latviją vadina “nerealiai tolerantiška tautinėms mažumoms valstybe”. Jo nuomone, tai patvirtina faktas, kad Latvijos rusai, nemokėdami latviškai, čia vis dėlto sugebėjo išgyventi pastaruosius 22 metus.

Latvijos Saeimos narys Romualdas Ražukas teigė, jog referendumas buvo nemalonus ir provokuojantis procesas, tačiau jo rezultatus – netikėtai pozityvus. Jo nuomone, iškalbingas faktas yra Rygos gyventojų balsų pasiskirstymas. Latvijos sostinėje gyvena 42 % latvių, tačiau prieš rusų kalbos antrąja valstybine kalba paskelbimą Rygoje pasisakė net 63 %.

Referendumas Latvijoje dar kartą primena, kad valstybių vykdoma kalbų politika gali tapti politiniu ginklu. Nežiūrint to, Baltijos valstybių piliečiai demonstruoja daug brandesnį požiūrį į kalbinius reikalus nei kai kurie politiniai veikėjai. Švedų režisieriaus, žurnalisto ir vertėjo Jono Öhman žodžiais, “Lietuviai, latviai ir estai, kitaip nei dauguma Europos tautų, mano, kad rusų kalba labai naudinga. Po anglų pusė Lietuvos gyventojų rusų kalbai duoda antrą vietą reikalingų užsienio kalbų sąraše. Tai galima paaiškinti netolima Baltijos šalių praeitimi ir, žinoma, dabartimi. Juk Rusija ­­– didelė Baltijos šalių kaimynė. Dabar net jaunimas, kuris nelabai moka rusiškai, nes rusų kalbos dėstymas mokyklose atgavus nepriklausomybę išblėso, dažnai pareiškia norįs mokytis būtent šios kalbos. Tad rusų kalba pamažu grįžta į užsienio kalbų mokymo programą.”

Ko gero situaciją po referendumo Latvijoje tiksliausiai apibūdina Arvydas Juozaitis: “Latvija – po mikroinfarkto. Reikia jai padėti.”

For more information in English, go to:

Latvia’s failed referendum

Lithuanian and Estonian officials issue statement on Latvian language

Kremlin manipulates Russians in Latvia

Lithuanian politicians rejoice in Latvia’s referendum results

Latvians voted “No” on making Russian second state language

Latvians celebrate referendum results and claim they voted against foreign language, not against nation

Rimvydas Valatka: Latvian referendum is not the last echo of Soviet occupation

For more information in Latvian, go to:

Latvijas krieviete: Varu apzvērēt – nekādas etniskās diskriminācijas Latvijā nav


Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää!

Finland celebrates its independence (from Russia) on 6 December. As a Finn living in Belgium, I will celebrate it today by reflecting for a moment on the language situation in Finland and what it has meant to me.

I grew up in Finland, a Nordic country with nearly 5.4 million inhabitants. Our national languages are Finnish and Swedish. Other language groups recognised in the constitution are three Sami languages, Finnish Romani and the Finnish sign language. At the end of 2010, 4 857 903 (90.4%) people had Finnish as mother tongue, 291 153 (5.4 %) Swedish and 1 832 (0.03 %) Sami (there are three Sami languages spoken in Finland) (Statistics Finland, 18.3.2011). In addition to these, there are of course other foreign language groups, out of which Russian is the largest. In Finnish comprehensive school, pupils learn at least Finnish, Swedish and English. Därför pratar ja också svenska. I don’t, however, get to practise my Swedish very much in Finland because the Swedish speaking Finns, finlandssvenskorna, are a small minority and as a rule speak very good Finnish. In spite of the fact that Swedish is an official language in Finland, most people speak much better English than Swedish. My first foreign language was English, too, which I started learning at the age of nine. Swedish and German came only later.

While Swedish language is only spoken by a small minority, it has retained its historically strong position. In comparison, the situation of the Sami has been far from ideal. As the coordinator of pre-school education of Sami language in Utsjoki community in Northern Finland puts it: “In the past it was forbidden to speak Sami at school. To make up for past suppression, the authorities of Norway, Sweden and Finland now make an effort to build up Sami cultural institutions and promote Sami culture and language. Still, the work has only just started.” (The Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity website). Luckily, several projects, such as the one in Utsjoki, are now running to enhance the language learning of the Sami such as this minority language pre-school education project.

I feel that as a Finn, I’ve been privileged with regard to access to education. The quality of the Finnish education has also been noted abroad, even more so after the good results in the PISA research. I will not analyse the reasons behind this in depth, but I think that at least the small group sizes, individual coaching and a freedom of choice, even at reasonably young age must all contribute to a good quality of education. At university level, if you want to, you can even choose minor subjects that have nothing or very little to do with your main subject (at least at first glance). That gives a very broad look on things.

Now, living in Belgium, I have also learned Dutch (or Flemish, as some might say). Here the language question is still very actual and even problematic. Belgium has now finally, after 541 days of negotiations, appointed the next Prime Minister, the French-speaking Elio Di Rupo, who will take the oath of office today (that’s the latest news anyway!). And, to end on a lighter note, today we also celebrate Sinterklaas in Belgium. Multiple languages, multiple reasons to celebrate!

Reindeer racing in Sápmi

I’ve just been reading about the upcoming Sami Easterfestival in Kautokeino / Guovdageaidnu (Norway) where there will be ice fishing competitions, snowmobile racing and the world lasso throwing and reindeer racing championships. It sounds wonderful, like that song by The Beatles about Mr. Kite’s circus where he promises to  trampoline “over men and horses, hoops and garters, lastly through a hogshead of real fire!” It also sounds like there’s a distinct possibility that it could degenerate into absolute chaos if, for example, the snowmobiles try to race the reindeers, or the lassoers take on the ice-fishers (after all, it doesn’t say what the championship lassoers are meant to lasso). If you’re thinking of heading along, please note that: ‘it’s not allowed to bring […] knifes or any other form of weapon to the festival concerts. If you bring any of this items they will be confiscated’. Which reminds me of this recent exhibition (in French).

Photo of the Sami rap group Duolva Duottar

Sami rap group Duolva Duottar

I realised, while browsing the festival website, that I really don’t know anything about the Sami/Sámi/Saami people. However, I work with two Finns (one of whom will be posting a related article soon), and having heard these people mentioned on more than one occasion I decided to do some research.

The Sami are the arctic indigenous people inhabiting Sápmi, a geographical area which, according to Wikipedia, covers parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, but also the border area between south and middle Sweden and Norway. It’s really quite a large area (see map). They are the Nordic countries’ only officially indigenous people and their traditional languages are the Sami languages – apparently there is not one Sami language, but, depending where you look, nine or ten, all of which are endangered. They are classified as part of the Finno-Lappic group of the Uralic language family (you can see the Uralic language family tree illustrated – along with many others – on this nice site: Ethnologue).

Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite - the poster that inspired the song

Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite - the poster that inspired the song

The languages use agglutination extensively — that system of combining affixes to the root of a word which allows words like the Finnish epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkäänköhän to exist (which to you and me means: “I wonder if — even with his/her quality of not having been made unsystematized”). Also, they have an average of 13-14 cases and use an extended (very extended) Latin alphabet. So, for an English speaker, rather complex.

My ‘research’, i.e. poking around the web and bugging my Finnish colleagues, brings me back to that same old question, that is to say, should we allow and accept that languages die off through a process of natural/artificial selection? Or is it the case that they are so inextricably linked with notions like identity and culture that to lose a language is to lose so much more? Or is there a middle ground where accept that not all languages can last for ever, but pledge to do more to see that they are recorded for posterity? I’d welcome your thoughts.

Thanks to Katri Mäenpää and Kirsi Suutarinen for their advice.