„Zwangsschwedisch“ in Finnland – Mandatory Swedish in Finland

An initiative to stop mandatory Swedish language classes in Finland reached 50,000 signatures in 6 months, meaning it must be considered by the Finnish parliament. Raija Laube (British Council Germany) is a Finn living in Germany. She gives her reaction to this news.


Als eine finnischsprachige Finnin habe ich mit Bedauern die Diskussion und die Sammlung von Unterschriften gegen den obligatorischen Schwedischunterricht in den finnischen Schulen verfolgt und die ganze Zeit leise gehofft,  dass diese Bewegung am Ende doch ohne Erfolg bleiben würde.

Natürlich war es damals in der Schule etwas lästig, diese Sprache lernen zu müssen, wenn wir doch lieber eine andere und eine mehr verbreitete Sprache hätten lernen wollen. Es mangelte an Motivation. Es gab zwar schwedische Sendungen im Fernsehen aber doch viel mehr englischsprachige oder deutsche Fernsehfilme. Um die Motivation zu steigern, verbrachten wir einige Wochen während der  Sommerferien in schwedischsprachigen Familien. Es half nicht viel. Erst, als ich die Sprache so gut beherrschte, dass ich schwedische Bücher in Original lesen konnte, fand ich daran richtig gefallen. Es ist ein Erlebnis Håkan Nesser in Original zu lesen und es ist ein Fest unsere eigenen finnlandsschwedischen Autoren ohne den Umweg der Übersetzung lesen und verstehen zu können. Ich möchte Kjell Westö, Monika Fagerholm oder Lars Sund  u.a. nicht vermissen.  Ich bin sehr dankbar für den Beitrag, den  die Autoren, Komponisten (Sibelius) und andere Künstler für das Kulturleben Finnlands erbracht haben.

Für mich und für andere Personen in meinem Umkreis hat das Schulschwedisch unser Leben bereichert. Es gibt viel Zusammenarbeit zwischen Finnland und den Skandinavischen Ländern in vielen Bereichen. Meine Schwester als Kinderpsychologin beteiligte sich an Nordischen Projekten. Es wäre kaum ohne Schwedischkenntnisse möglich gewesen.

Und zu guter Letzt die Sprache selbst: Ich kenne keine andere Sprache, in der man so vielfältig mit Perfekt Partizip jonglieren und jubilieren kann.

Raija Laube

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!

New Multilingual Synopsis of the European Training Thesaurus

We have just heard about this exciting new tool for training professionals and wanted to share it with you. This article originally appeared in Europa news on languages.

New Multilingual Synopsis of the European Training Thesaurus – Are you a training professional? A new multilingual toolkit for you.

The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) has recently published the new Multilingual Synopsis of the European Training Thesaurus for all those working in education, training and employment.

The publication, which is available online, is a selection of 1,207 terms and concepts which appear frequently in literature related to European vocational education and training. The tool, which is the basis for the complete online thesaurus CEDEFOP is currently preparing, allows for quick navigation by language, term and topic.

The terms/concepts cover several topics such as lifelong learning, vocational education and training policy, assessment and certification of learning outcomes, recognition of certificates and diplomas. Each term is presented in 11 languages: Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Swedish.

To download the thesaurus, click here.

Languages with no future better for the future?

According to a recent article Yale researcher Keith Chen is “currently working on a paper in which he examines the effect of future tense in different cultures’ future-oriented behavior.” He distinguishes between the so-called strong future time reference (FTR) languages, like English, which according to his preliminary research are “more likely to make poor decisions in terms of planning for the future resulting in higher rates of obesity, debt, smoking, drinking, and so forth” and other, weak FTR languages, which would then have the opposite effect on the future.  Although the research paper has not been finished yet and there has been criticism, such as the difficulty to categorize languages as strong or weak FTR, I thought this a good opportunity to look at a language with no future tense since the sheer idea of it often puzzles people.

My mother tongue Finnish does not have an actual future tense. We use the present tense also for future and words like kohta (soon) or huomenna (tomorrow) or ensi vuonna (next year) to mark the future. The so-called tulla-futuuri (tulla=will be) is however becoming (!) more and more common. It’s not (yet) considered acceptable and many people are very much against it but it seems that it’s winning popularity and might find its way into the Finnish language norms, whether we like it or not. One of the reasons why this form has been frowned upon is because its origins are in the Swedish language’s kommer att construction. However, as Jääskeläinen points out in her article, also the newer tenses in Finnish, i.e. perfect and past perfect tenses have come from the West into the Finnish language. Some people argue that the tulla-futuuri is even necessary in some cases and would hinder the understanding of the sentence if it wasn’t used. The following examples are taken from translation company Translatum’s language help section (with my translations into English):

Virtanen tulee olemaan riemuissaan valinnastaan. (Virtanen will be happy if he’s chosen.)

Virtanen on riemuissaan valinnastaan. (Virtanen is happy because he’s chosen.)

In the above examples, it is indeed true that the addition or elimination of the tulla structure changes the meaning of the rest of the sentence, too. So sometimes it seems legitimate to use it. Of course you could argue that it’s not necessary even here as you could explain the phrase in another way, too, such as by adding a subordinate clause like “if he’s chosen” at the end, resulting in:

Virtanen on riemuissaan, jos hänet valitaan.*

To go back to the article about the future tense’s effect on the future, does it actually imply that nations like Finland, with no clear future tense, will have less obesity, debt, smokers, drinkers and so forth? Well, I think many people associate Finland with heavy drinking but it looks like we are by far not the only Europeans binge drinking. We are also not on the top of the list when it comes to obesity (we learned something in the 1970s) nor do we have the most public debt to GDP ratio. We do like to plan and I think are at times good at foreseeing the future so we don’t fall into a complete and utter crisis. Then again, it’s not that long ago that Finland was in deep recession (early 1990s). So could a language’s strong or weak future tense indeed have some effect on the country’s future? I think it’s certainly an intriguing research but we need to know more to make better conclusions. However, it’s always good to stop and think how languages are built, how different structures come about and just how much is borrowed or stolen from other languages. That’s how we get a bigger picture of the things and can understand the language as well as the culture and the nation better. And that’s really the ultimate goal we strive for, isn’t it?

(*I realise that the Finnish language examples might need more explanation to non-Finnish speakers – such as why I translated different clauses in the same way, both with ‘jos hänet valitaan’ – but this goes a bit beyond the point of this article. Apologies for a possible confusion!)

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!

Some 50 million EU citizens, 10% of the EU population, speak a regional or minority language

Some of my recent posts (Reindeer racing in Sápmi, Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Duit, etc.) have been triggered by news items I’ve spotted in the Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity’s  website. The NPLD is a pan-European network which covers regional, minority, indigenous, cross-border and smaller national languages to promote linguistic diversity in the context of a multilingualEurope.  Some 50 million EU citizens, 10% of the EU population, speak a regional or minority language.

The network currently includes representatives from the following languages: Finnish, Basque, Catalan, Breton, Occitan, Cornish, Welsh, Swedish, Lithuanian, Irish Gaelic, Frisian, Estonian, Sami, Corsican, Galician, Meänkieli and Karelian.

Their aim is to facilitate the sharing of existing best practice and the development of new and innovative ideas across the field of language planning in education, the home, the workplace, legislation and the media in the contexts of constitutional, regional and smaller state languages.

NPLD website

According to the network: “as language planners we are aware that many of the issues facing these linguistic communities will be very similar and that sharing good practice is a must if these languages are to survive and flourish.” 

Further information can be found on the NPLD website (www.npld.eu) which includes news stories concerning the network and European multilingualism, which brings me back to where I started.