Language tensions mount in bilingual Finland

Finland's struggles as a bilingual country can hardly be compared to those in Belgium or Canada, but the tiny Swedish-speaking minority is nonetheless concerned the country's second official language is at risk.

“Finland tries to teach everyone a lesson about morality but minorities in China are treated better,” blasted Juhan Janhunen, an expert on Asian languages, comparing one of the most egalitarian countries in the world to the Communist regime.

Janhunen is a member of an umbrella lobby group, The Swedish-speaking Association of Finland, that travelled from Helsinki to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, on November 22nd to denounce “Finland’s attempts at Finlandization.”

Finnish and Swedish, which are not related, have been Finland’s two official languages since 1922.

Finnish speakers represent 92 percent of the country’s 5.3 million inhabitants, compared to just 5.6 percent Swedish speakers. Almost all Swedish speakers are bilingual, while up to 40 percent of Finnish speakers more or less understand Swedish.

Swedish speakers in Finland, which was ruled by neighbouring Sweden from 1150 to 1809, retain considerable influence in society — almost every coalition government in modern times has included ministers from the Swedish-speaking Liberal Party.

Three of the country’s presidents have been native Swedish speakers, though the current head of state, Tarja Halonen, speaks it decently but not perfectly.

But the Swedish language’s heyday seems to be over.

The share of Swedish speakers has dropped by a third since 1880, when they represented about 15 percent of the population.

The fall is attributed to many Swedish speakers moving to Sweden, while the emigration of Finnish-speaking Finns to Sweden and the United States had faded by 1900.

Since Swedish holds official language status, bilingual signs are everywhere and almost all government documents must be published in both languages, though the Swedish translation is not always immediately available.

But most speakers say they need Finnish to get by in their daily lives as Swedish has increasingly lost ground.

Elderly Swedish speakers have difficulty getting health care in their mother tongue, public television has cancelled some of its Swedish-language programming and the once-mandatory Swedish language exam for university studies was abolished in 2005.

And as a result of budgetary cutbacks, Swedish-speaking police stations, courts and municipal offices will in the coming years be integrated into Finnish entities.

“It’s scandalous! We don’t even know who was here first, the Swedes or the Finns,” thunders a judge, Charles Lindroos, whose court is due to close.

Heikki Tala, the head of the Association for Finnish Culture and Identity, doesn’t see a problem.

“Swedish speakers enjoy privileges like no other linguistic minority in the world,” he said.

“The 500,000 Finns in Sweden have no rights,” he pointed out.

Contrary to Canada or Belgium, where certain regions are defined by their languages, Finland’s Swedish speakers are spread out across the country, with the exception of the autonomous Åland archipelago whose sole official language is Swedish.

Sonia Parayre, an expert at the Council of Europe tasked with monitoring the implementation of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, said Swedish speakers were right to be concerned but noted that Finnish language legislation was among “the most protectionist” in Europe.

“The message to authorities is: okay you have reforms underway, but beware, you have to respect a number of rules on language rights,” she said.

In 2005, Finnish-language author Arto Paasilinna, who wrote The Year of the Hare, told Kaleva magazine he believed “the question will be resolved naturally. The Swedish speakers will die off, taking their language with them.”

AFP’s Gael Branchereau