50,000 people have signed a petition against mandatory Swedish classes in Finnish schools, triggering a parliamentary debate on the issue.
To assess the likely outcome of this, it’s instructive to consider some details of the sociolinguistic context (both historical and contemporary). Currently, Swedish first-language speakers make up approximately 6% of Finland’s population of five-and-a-half million, whereas the figure for Finnish sits at around 90%. These figures are almost exactly reversed in the Åland Islands (a small autonomous Finnish region located between Sweden and Finland), where Swedish is the only official language.
By Finnish national law, Swedish instruction begins at the latest in the three years of lower secondary school, with a minimum of 228 hours of instruction over those three years. Provision in upper secondary schools varies greatly, and can be as low as 16 hours total. As a result of this variation in demography and education, levels of proficiency acquired in Swedish are very mixed. There is also a good deal of resistance from pupils who become disinterested in Swedish, most notably in those areas where Swedish use is low.
Now consider the historical context. From the Middle Ages until the 19th century, Finland was ruled and governed as a part of Sweden. During this period, especially the later stages, Swedish was the language of the ruling class. In 1809, Finland was conquered by Russia, but still retained Swedish as the language of administration, justice, and higher education.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, Finnish gained ground in social and official domains due to growing nationalist sentiment. The first language law providing equal status for Finnish and Swedish was approved in 1902. Finland gained independence in 1917; and its current constitution came into effect in 1922, declaring co-official status for Finnish and Swedish (partly in order to see off Russian). In Finnish society today, Swedish is generally spoken more in the coastal southern, south-western and western regions, as well as in larger cities due to migration.
The petition reflects heated civic debate with passionate arguments on both sides. Ultimately though, it seems likely that the Finnish Parliament will not actually grant the wishes of the petitioners. There are several reasons…
First and most obvious is the co-official status for Finnish and Swedish, enshrined at the highest level in the national constitution. Mandatory Swedish education was not explicitly specified in the constitution, but subsequent laws have formalised that requirement. Whether constitutional amendments were deemed to be necessary, or just repeal of individual laws, decisive consensus would be needed from Finnish MPs – in a relatively diverse multi-party system ill-suited to radical change.
Second, mandatory Swedish in education began with a compromise in the 1970s involving reciprocal mandatory Finnish in Swedish-speaking municipalities – and so any change could affect both languages, which may be unappealing to Finns and seen as a risk to national unity.
Third, Finland is a signatory of the Declaration of Nordic Language Policy which aims to strengthen the teaching of Scandinavian languages. Finnish is not a Scandinavian language, and although Finland is a Nordic country (along with Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden), it is not consistently seen as part of Scandinavia (which tends to refer to just Denmark, Norway and Sweden) and so this could be seen as weakening Nordic ties – one may also speculate about Finnish consequently losing favour in Sweden’s schools, where it is taught in many border and coastal areas.
So, radical change may seem unlikely. Nevertheless, having said all this, it is worth pausing for a moment to assess the weight of opinion in this petition. The Finnish Parliament’s established threshold of 50,000 signatures might seem modest, but that is almost 1% of the Finnish population – the equivalent of requiring around 600,000 signatures in the UK, or around 3 million in the USA. For further perspective on this weight of opinion, the most signed petition on the UK’s official petition site currently has 266,327 signatures – around half the level of support for this Finnish poll by proportion of the population. So this is no fringe movement. Meanwhile, the Association of Finnish Culture and Identity runs periodic surveys showing broad support for removing the mandatory provision of Swedish. Then there’s the conspicuous rise of the nationalist ‘True Finns’ party (a bulwark of the anti-compulsory Swedish campaign), who now hold about a fifth of Parliamentary seats.
The lively critiques of mandatory Swedish range from utilitarian critiques of the usefulness of Swedish globally, all the way through to conspiratorial grumblings about powerful shadowy Swedish-speaking élites skewing Finnish corporate hiring practices. This latter aspect is troubling not least because it is so reminiscent of the sorts of malevolent conspiracies peddled elsewhere throughout history, about minorities seen as secretly pulling invisible strings.
In the end, the petition, the right-wing electoral upsurge, and the heating up of this old debate, could just be a historically familiar insular reaction to economic woes. It could just be a cloud that lifts with economic recovery. Nevertheless, that recovery is not expected imminently: real-terms declines in earnings are projected for years to come in Finland. So, at the very least this debate will lumber on for some time. Add to this the growth of migration to Finland – in particular Russian-speakers, projected to outweigh Swedish-speakers by 2050 – and the debate becomes even more complex and diffuse.
Whichever route Finland eventually chooses, it is unlikely to resolve the debate definitively. Finns are a judicious and cautious people. The trajectory of the debate can be summed up by an old Finnish proverb, which roughly translates as ‘better to go a mile in the wrong direction than take a dangerous shortcut’.