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Sweden extends Finnish-language rights

Published: 28 Dec 2012 14:20 GMT+01:00

Half a million of Sweden's 9 million inhabitants either speak Finnish or come from Finnish-speaking families, said Katarina Popovic, head of development at the Unit For Minority Affairs at Stockholm County Administrative Board (Länsstyrelsen).

Finnish was classified a minority language alongside Sami, Romani and Yiddish in 2010 after Sweden ratified two European Union conventions that sought to protect and to promote minorities and their languages.

It is of acute concern for many elderly Finnish-speakers, Popovic told The Local.

"Some lose their Swedish even though they've lived here for many many years, so in these cases we are talking about a very acute need as a person to be able to make yourself understood," she said.

The municipalities of Borlänge, Enköping, Finspång, Luleå, Motala, Sandviken, Uddevalla and Örebro have been added to the 40 places where authorities currently have to offer services in Finnish to residents.

"Previously speaking Finnish wasn't encouraged by the authorities," said Popovic. "These laws are rights-based, not needs-based, so even if you speak Swedish you can ask for contact with public servants to be in Finnish."

Finnish was at first offered only in seven municipalities in northern Sweden, with some also required to offer Meänkieli and Sami.

"Then after some criticism from the European Council, Sweden rewrote parts of the law and extended its reach in 2010," Popovic said.

The government decided just before Christmas that eight more municipalities had to give their residents the option of communicating in Finnish as well as offer their children the right to study in their mother tongue.

The state compensates the municipalities for the cost of offering minority language services.

"There have always been Finns in Sweden, since the Middle Ages, not to mention that Sweden and Finland were one country until 1809. We have a lot of shared history," Popovic noted.

When turning the EU directives on minorities and minority languages into law, Sweden set several qualifying criteria. The groups had to have been in Sweden for more than a century. And the group had to retain a sense of community cohesion.

"Of course it was a process with a lot of discussion and debate. The Sami, who are considered a native people, and Jews aren't big groups, there are many more recent immigrants who make up bigger groups," Popovic noted.

"Then there have been big immigrant groups in the past, such as the Walloons, who no longer speak their language."

Ann Törnkvist

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Your comments about this article

19:42 December 28, 2012 by johan rebel
Come on, if you move to Sweden of your own volition, then learn the language and get on with it. Taxpayer money should not be wasted on providing services in foreign languages.
23:40 December 28, 2012 by Dijondel
Ha ha Johan, try living here in Australien. You are allowed to sit your driving test in a variety of languages. So you can use the roads without being able to speak English.

This leads to, and I am not being at all racist or discriminatiory here, just factual, taxi drivers of Indian, Chinese or Islander persuasion who just can't communicate.

One Fijian went to court and needed the (state-provided) interpreter.

Bills and govt departments all have phone service interpreters.

Mind you, none of us complains when all the street and shop signs in (tourist) China all have English subtitles, do we?
10:20 December 29, 2012 by Decedo
I thought some of us English speakers were bad. My Finnish buddy's dad moved to sweden about 40 years ago. Only works within the Finnish community, all Finnish friends, a few polish workers and doesn't know very much Swedish. His wife does all his company taxes and banking (in Swedish).
11:57 December 29, 2012 by Abe L
It's 2012, soon 2013. Wouldn't it make much more sense to make English an official minority language? Half a million people that speak Finnish compared to at least 6 million (probably more) that speak English.

It would make everything a lot easier for everyone, natives and immigrants.
09:35 December 30, 2012 by pkpekka
To Abe L: English is already a de-facto official minority language. All the forms are available in English and everybody in Sweden speaks English (including government officials). But there is a dramatic contrast when one looks at the rights of the Swedish speakers in Finland and the (comparatively much less prominent) rights of Finnish speakers in Sweden. Not that I am arguing that they should be the same but Finland was part of Sweden at the same time as Sweden was the country that included (colonized) Finland as its territory for 600 years. And similar amounts of Finnish-speakers live in Sweden as Swedish-speakers in Finland. Swedish-Finnish culture has of course been preserved much better in Finland than Finnish culture in Sweden, that is why Swedish see Finns as immigrants and do not so much see the historical connections between the countries/cultures. To Decedo: Prejudices are of course fun. BTW I have never seen a site which crashes this often when you try to submit comments!
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