Are Finns saying no to Swedish?

Bilingual Swedish-Finnish monument in Helsinki commenmorating globally beloved children's author Tove Jansson, a Swedish-speaking Finn (Source:

Bilingual Swedish-Finnish monument in Helsinki commenmorating globally beloved children’s author Tove Jansson, a Swedish-speaking Finn (Source:

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’.

Author Dave Sayers

Dr. Dave Sayers (ORCID # 0000-0003-1124-7132) is a Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. His research interests include language policy and planning, and variationist sociolinguistics. His website is

More posts by Dave Sayers
  • Do most of the children in Finnland learn 2 foreign languages at least? When do they start learning English?

  • Dave Sayers

    The best answer I can give is to quote an excellent article on the subject by Åsa Palviainen: “Finnish students typically begin their first foreign language in Grade 3 at nine years of age. While the possibility exists in theory to choose from a range of languages, the majority start with English; for instance, 95% of Finnish students in Grade 3 chose English in 2009 (the Finnish National Board of Education, 2010). Students may also begin an optional second foreign language in Grade 5 at eleven years of age.” Åsa’s article is available for free here:

  • I’m a language teacher from Finland (English, French and Swedish) and you’re right, a large majority chooses English as their first foreign language. This means that by the time they reach the 7th grade (age 13) and the compulsory Swedish lessons start, they are studying a minimum of 2, but up to 3 foreign languages.

    I very much liked your article and just wanted to point out that according to recent surveys, as well as my experience in the classrooms, the loudest opponents of mandatory Swedish lessons are the parents of today’s students. Most of the students themselves are relatively eager (let’s not exaggerate anything, they are teenagers after all) to start studying the language. This is of course especially true in the capital region where I teach and doesn’t apply everywhere else in Finland. As much as I am in favor of keeping Swedish I do understand that the students closer to the border with Russia would rather study Russian, which they would have a lot more immediate use for than Swedish.

  • hammock

    I think your text is very accurate description of the language situation in Finland and you have been careful to not choose sides.

    I am a Finnish guy (27) and I’m quite obsessed about mandatory Swedish. It really doesn’t make any sense.
    I understand very well if the parents of Finnish students are strongly against mandatory Swedish. They want best for their children and the best would be that the students could themselves choose what two foreign languages they will learn. The best certainly is not to study a minor language that most Finns won’t ever need in practice. For many it would be much more worthwhile and much more interesting to learn for example Russian, Portuguese, German, French or Spanish.

    228 hours is a hell of a lot of work. (Not to mention the mandatory Swedish in high-schools and universities.) The students should of course be given the chance to choose which language they will work on.

  • Not a foreign language

    Swedish is not a foreign language in Finland. The National Anthem was written in Swedish, the ideas of national sovereignty and a Finnish identity was first uttered in Swedish.
    From a utilitarian POV, Swedish is a far more useful language than Finnish. There are twice as many native speakers and add the closely related Danish and Norwegian to the mix and the number of speakers is quadruple.
    It would be fair that both national languages would be made optional in all . Anything else is hypocritical. Do not the parents of Swedish speaking children have the same desires as the parents of Finnish-speaking children? Do they not want the best for their children? Wouldn’t it also be in their best interest that the students could themselves choose what languages they will learn. The best certainly is not to study a minor language that most people won’t ever need in practice.
    Why doesn’t anybody think of the children?
    Oh, by the way: good luck learning Russian in 228 hours.

  • hammock

    I admit that the word ‘foreign’ wasn’t a very good choice of words. By ‘foreign languages’ I meant languages that differs from the native language of the students.

    For many pro-language choice supporters it would be totally fine, if studying Finnish was optional too. Most Swedish speaking Finns would learn Finnish anyway. About 90 % of the Swedish Finns voluntarily chooses to study Finnish as their A-language instead of their B-language. That means they will start learning Finnish in third grade instead of eighth grade. Swedish might be more useful globally then Finnish, but it should be needless to say, that in Finland Finnish is quite useful. (Way more useful than Swedish.)

    If you count in the Danes and the Norwegians, there are about 20 million people who speak Swedish. Meanwhile, there are about 140 million Russian-speakers just outside the border. About 80 million speak German, 65 million speak French and so on and so on. It makes no sense, that the students can’t choose these language and must learn Swedish instead.

    “Why doesn’t anybody think of the children?”
    That is exactly what we are doing, when we are trying to abolish mandatory Swedish.

    “Oh, by the way: good luck learning Russian in 228 hours.”
    I really don’t understand how that is an argument for mandatory Swedish. I didn’t learn Swedish in 228 hours (+6 mandatory courses in gymnasium and polytechnic) either. The students would learn best if they were studying a language that interest them. Swedish included.

  • Here it tells in Swedish and in English what we talk about, when we talk about obligatory Swedish:

  • Not a foreign language

    “languages that differs from the native language of the students”
    In a couple of years twenty percent of the students in Helsinki will not have Finnish as a native language. Finnish is being imposed on them because of the non-argument “in Finland Finnish is quite useful”. I’m sure you understand that you are basically just spewing out basic ethno-nationalistic, prejudiced rhetorics. You are just saying Finland for the Finns, love it or leave it.
    If you count in the Danes and the Norwegians, there are about 20 million people who speak Swedish. There are about 140 million Russian-speakers just outside the border. About 80 million speak German, 65 million speak French and so on and so on. It makes no sense, that the students can’t choose these language and must learn Finnish instead.
    “I really don’t understand how that is an argument…”
    You say Swedish-speakers learn the useless Finnish language because they start reading it earlier, but when you do not learn the Swedish language when you read less of it you want to study Russian instead. Hypocritical much?
    Learning Swedish does not stop one from learning other languages. Maybe learning Finnish does, as it is such a difficult language, but I doubt it. That is a silly line of argumentation.
    As is the utilitarian argument, as it should work both ways. Abolishing the teaching of Finnish means either the abolishing of the Finnish national language system or abandoning the principle of equality in the state.

  • cptpicard

    Probably the principled moral argument from “national language” is the only really appropriate one in this discussion, as otherwise most of the other arguments in the style of “it’s nice to be able to speak Swedish if you’re tourist in Stockholm”, “you must be a bit dim and hated going to school in general, eh?” are rather weak or at least quite intentional in what they seek to achieve. Often one ends up debating these peripheral explanations and that’s an endless, fruitless and actually very annoying grind.

    If one doesn’t say that Swedish needs to be treated in a very principled way, even on an individual basis, as equivalent to Finnish, of course the situation seems strange and there would be no reason whatsoever why we couldn’t just build a new language curriculum that looks different. Even in the situation of Swedish-speakers being “just” a minority there would be a perfectly good case to consider what exactly the obligation to Swedish of everyone else is. In a country where the majority has always been very Finnish-speaking and currently some 92% are the idea of everyone having to “feel Swedish” (and to be actually coerced to) can be a tough sell.

    By the way, in a recent poll some 60% of all respondents supported the idea of removing compulsory Swedish-education, so it’s not just the roughly 1% who signed the petition. It’s pretty much always been around that number when polled.

  • wake up

    “You say Swedish-speakers learn the useless Finnish language because they start reading it earlier, but when you do not learn the Swedish language when you read less of it you want to study Russian instead. Hypocritical much?”

    For Swedish-speakers Finnish language is not useless, 90% of Finns have Finnish language as their mother tongue and even almost half of young Swedish-speakers have Finnish-speaking mom or dad.

    Swedish is as common in Finland as latin. Our everyday life doesn’t have anything to do with Swedish. But if someone is keen on learning a certain language e.g. Russian of course it is easier than to learn a language which is mandatory and chosen because of ones own interests.

  • wake up

    “it is easier to learn a language chosen because of ones own interests than a mandatory language”

  • Not a foreign language

    “Our everyday life doesn’t have anything to do…”
    “it is easier to learn a language chosen because of ones own interests than a mandatory language”
    The same applies to the Swedish-speakers and the useless Finnish language. You are deriving an “ought” from an “is”, when you state that there is some sort of inherent utilitarian value to the Finnish language. There is not. When a country is bilingual, as Finland is, the state will facilitate it´s citizens to interact with the state with both national languages. Hence Swedish and Finnish are equally useful in the narrow context of the Finnish state, but Finnish is quite useless in the international context. The road to multilingualism does not go from bilingualism to monolingualism.
    From a utilitarian POV there is no need to force the Finnish language on anybody in Finland. Quite the opposite, in fact.
    re:”almost half of young Swedish-speakers…” What exactly are you implying? That bilingual Swedish-speakers with one Finnish-speaking parent are somehow less Swedish-speaking? Surely there will be a nearly equal number of young bilingual Finnish speakers? Are they counted as Finns? Why? That whole line of thinking sounds like musky old ethnonationalism. Those who live in a bilingual family will most likely become bilingual themselves. The statistics are hardly relevant to your point. Care to elaborate?
    “Latin”? Really? “90 percent”? Aren’t you just saying “might is right”?

  • Tyty

    It is a foreign language when you are studying it, and especially when you never hear it anywhere. The reason why everything happened in Swedish was because it wasn’t possible to get education in Finnish! It’s a good thing that Russia won Finland from Sweden, so also Finnish speaking children were able to go to school, though even then it took half a century. Swedish is not part of my identity, nor has it been any of my ancestors.

    Finnish is more useful language in Finland, in fact I have never used Swedish anywhere. It is not my business to tell what languages Swedish speaking children should learn but in a country that de facto operates solely in Finnish it is wise to study it. Besides, I have no reason to speak with Danes, Norvegians or even Swedes in Swedish. They all speak excellent English.

  • Tyty

    Finnish is not useless in Finland, you can ask any immigrant and I would guess they are very willing to learn Finnish. I know two personally (but I don’t know any Swedish speaking Finns). It is not my problem if they don’t want to study Finnish. I am quite willing to give them the opportunity to choose something else if my children get it, too. I just haven’t heard many complaining about it. I guess they want to work in the future…

    “What exactly are you implying? That bilingual Swedish-speakers with one Finnish-speaking parent are somehow less Swedish-speaking? Surely there will be a nearly equal number of young bilingual Finnish speakers?”

    Bilingual Finns usually choose Swedish as their mother tongue in the official papers, so yes they are counted as Swedish speaking. There are not many bilingual “Finnish speaking Finns”.

  • wake up

    The Swedish-speakers (5,5 % of Finns, many with Finnsh-speaking mom or dad) themselves say that they definetly need Finnish in Finland.

  • wake up

    Swedish was “national language” in Finland about fifty years before it became mandatory. Sweadish is mandatory only because of USSR. Finlands only free border was to Sweden in the time of cold war.

  • Not a foreign language

    “The reason why everything happened in Swedish was because it wasn’t possible to get education in Finnish!”
    And still the Swedish-speakers shaped the Finnish nation. Swedishness has most likely been a part of the identities of all Finns. The two can not be parted, as they are so deeply intertwined. Claiming anything else is just falsifying history. But this is all irrelevant, as it just flow towards the same grim ethnonationalism that has been so prevalent in many comments here.
    “solely in Finnish” again a “ought from an “is”. How exactly does monolinguality help multilinguality?

  • Tyty

    “And still the Swedish-speakers shaped the Finnish nation.”
    Arrogant much? Read a bit about Finnish history, there are a lot of Finnish speakers among them. History is taught in the history classes anyway, languages are studied for the future. Why are not Swedes and even Germans studying Finnish? They did during the Middle Age.

    “Swedishness has most likely been a part of the identities of all Finns.”
    Most likely?! According to whom? There is no “Swedishness” in my identity, I am Finnish and my ancestors have been Finnish. 200 (1595-1809) or 100 (1617-1721) years under Swedish rule doesn’t make them Swedish. As far as I know none of them have spoken Swedish, ever. Some of them lived in Karelia and Russian culture and language are much closer to my identity but I am not demanding that everyone studies Russian. That would be arrogant. (See, there’s that word again.)

    “ethnonationalism”? What is that? What that has to do with anything? I think you are mistaken. They were Swedish speaking people who claimed only 100 years ago that Finnish speaking Finns were racially inferior. Like that nice guy named Axel Olof Freudenthal who is still very respected in SFP.

    “How exactly does monolinguality help multilinguality?”
    So you are demanding that also immigrants study not only Finnish but also Swedish? I’ll tell you a secret, Finland is already multilingual. Only the fact is that in a large majority of the country, those languages doesn’t include Swedish. Russian yes, English yes…

  • Not a foreign language

    There is nothing arrogant in acknowledging the truth: Swedish-speaking Finns have played a crucial role in the nation-building of Finland. Denying that is crazy.
    If history is the only reason to learn Swedish, the same applies doubly for Finnish. The Finnish language has no future (Grammar pun high five!)
    P.S. if you consider history to be irrelevant, then you shouldn’t yourself argue from history. Your limited knowledge about your ancestry is completely off topic. Rest assured, that the Swedish language is an integral part of the Finnish society. But I guess that too is off topic. What was the topic again?
    It’s nice that you found someone who was a racist 100 years ago, but that is hardly a needle in a haystack. Racism was the top of the pops back then. That is ancient history. Bitter much?
    As for current affairs: for your brand of ethnonationalistic Finnish extremism we need look no further than ten years, as then the Finnish Alliance proposed that all true Finns should liberate themselves from the Swedish-speakers by way of axe-murder, re:Lalli and Bishop Henrik.
    So… stones, glasshouse…
    Well, actually, if you would read my posts, you would see that I do not at any point make any claim taht any sane person would interpret as “demanding that also immigrants study not only Finnish but also Swedish”.
    Sticking to bilingualism is not a way to multilingualism, but it is better than prejudiced monolingualism.
    In large parts of the country Finnish is not important. So what?

  • Not a foreign language

    Surely you understand that the “they-are-not-really-Swedish-speaking-Finns”-is basic racist rhetorics? It’s like the “1 of 10 000” speech in Django Unchained. Geez.

  • Tyty

    – Swedes didn’t allow education in Finnish. Kings took our men to fight wars for them. I don’t understand why I should thank them for it.

    – If you don’t want to study Finnish, it’s fine by me. History or no history.

    – I am arguing against your “theory” that Finns have a “Swedishness” in their identity. I have not and you can’t change that fact. I can trace my ancestors till 17th century. I know were they lived, and it was not inside Swedish borders at the time.

    – If Swedish were an integral part of Finnish society, professors, teachers, doctors that have studied it and over 60 % of Finns would not be against mandatory Swedish. But it is not.

    – SFP gives out a medal named after Freudenthal. The party was based on the idea that Finns are of an inferior race. And your arguments supports the idea that some people still believe so. Besides, you are the one arguing about the history.

    – The discussion has started in the early 1990’s at least, there were no True Finns at the time.

    “In large parts of the country Finnish is not important. So what?”
    – Oh, that’s a good one. Can you give me an example? I can’t think of any. Maybe Närpiö but who would go there anyway? It’s not really big town anyway.

    Anyway, did you have a reason why all Finns have to study Swedish that is spoken only by less than 5 % of the population in the mainland Finland instead of Russian or French or German? I supposed not because you are already attacking against me,

  • Tyty

    “Surely you understand that the “they-are-not-really-Swedish-speaking-Finns”-is basic racist rhetorics? It’s like the “1 of 10 000″ speech in Django Unchained. Geez.”

    I don’t even know who has said that or what you are trying to say.

    Calling someone racist just because they want to choose the languages their children will study in the future is a good example of ad hominem argument. Actually most of your arguments are like that. Swedish speaking Finns have no right to demand that Finnish speaking Finns study their language.

    So you say that the language spoken and understood by 90-95% of the population is just as useful in a country as the language spoken and understood by 5%. I guess you just lost your credibility.

  • Not a foreign language

    There is a big difference in pointing out that someone uses racist rhetorics and calling someone a racist.
    I pointed out that the implication of your line of argument is basic racist rhetoric. Instead of clarifying with what you meant with your “their parent speaks Finnish” comment, you made yourself into a victim in your rhetoric. Then again, that is sort of the standard M.O. in racist rhetoric nowadays. The intolerant are crying because their intolerance is not tolerated.
    Swedish-speaking Finns have as much sway-power as Finnish-speaking Finns. You are argumenting against demographics instead of issues. The state demands that all citizens are taught both national languages. There are some problems to that policy, but it is a lot better than teaching only one national language. This site is about multilingualism, remember?
    Your “90%” argumentation is all about “might is right”, which is inherently intolerant. For you FInnishness is about language, eg ethnonationalism. The utilitarian argumentation does not hold, and neither does that. To maintain the magical “90%” percent argument you must impose the Finnish language on other groups, with the closed circle-argument “Finnish is useful because we speak Finnish because Finnish is useful…”. Same can be said for Swedish. You fall back on ethnonationalistic monolingualism.
    It is not a good argument.

  • Not a foreign language

    The Finnish Alliance encouraged all true Finns to axe-murder Swedish-speakers in June 2001.
    I have no interest in your family, your thoughts or your feelings, as they are not relevant arguments. But it is interesting how you point out that you have some sort of “pure” ethnic Finnishness. How do you think that is relevant? Do you think that makes you a superior citizen compared to other Finns?
    Please explain.
    BTW We’re talking about state politics, not identity politics. How does learning hurt your identity? What is that identity based on?
    This is way off topic, but please do explain.
    You still keep playing the victim card and seem to be very bitter about ancient history. How is that relevant to modern language policy? I’m saying that your view of history is quite skewed.
    I totally support learning Russian, German and other languages. I have never suggested the opposite. You just created a false dichotomy. I think that people should be allowed to use their native language with the state. You seem to be saying something in the vein of “Finland for the Finns”.
    P.S. If you would know more than 2 foreigners, you would now that the entire coastline and the three largest cities have active non-Finnish-speaking communities. It is possible to live a full life without speaking Finnish. There is no reason to force Finnish on people. The language has no inherent value. Society should become multilingual, not monolingual. Also, argumenting from oneself is not valid argumentation.

  • Tyty

    It’s a good thing you are here to argue so people even foreigners can see what we are up against.

    “Instead of clarifying with what you meant with your “their parent speaks Finnish” comment, you made yourself into a victim in your rhetoric.”
    -What? Their other parent speaks Finnish and other Swedish. It is estimated that 70% of those kids are listed as Swedish speakers. How is that racist?

    -Are people in Åland also racist because they abolished mandatory Finnish or is it reserved only to Finnish speaking Finns? What about my Chinese friend? She’s against the mandatory Swedish and worries about the university course she has to take in order to graduate. Is she racist?

    “Swedish-speaking Finns have as much sway-power as Finnish-speaking Finns.”
    – They shouldn’t, not in a democracy. Everyone has one vote.

    – The state started to demand that 40 years ago. That mistake we are here trying to correct.

    – How is it better for the country that Finns know good (not mandatory) English and little or no Swedish, that if Finns would know English AND Russian or French or German or Swedish..? How does it make Finland less multilingual?

    -I don’t have to impose anything. Finns learned Finnish as children and others want to study it. You can claim that Swedish is as useful but everyone knows it’s not true. Apart from small areas people won’t understand you. Everyone who has ever been in Finland can tell you that. There has always been Finnish speaking in Sweden, too. Why they are not racist?

  • Tyty

    “But it is interesting how you point out that you have some sort of “pure” ethnic Finnishness. How do you think that is relevant? Do you think that makes you a superior citizen compared to other Finns?”

    – Is there something wrong with being Finnish? You have no interest but still keep claiming you know my identity better than myself? I merely pointed out the fact that I/we, as a whole, don’t necessarily have “Swedishness” in our identity. Claiming that we have is racist. (Well not really but you keep using that word. Only Swedish speaking think that we are not of the same “race”. They are the ones segregating people.) Your claim that Swedish speaking people were better than Finnish speaking and Finnish speaking people did not have any input in forming this country is racist. And how can you be so sure they didn’t speak Finnish too? Many did.

    – I was “hurt” by the fact that I didn’t get to choose the languages that I wanted to study. I wanted to study French, or German, or Russian, anything useful really instead of/before Swedish. I wasn’t allowed.

    “How is that relevant to modern language policy?”
    -I don’t know. Only that people like you keep claiming we study Swedish because of that, ancient history.

    “We’re talking about state politics, not identity politics.”
    – Yes, that it is, politics. It has nothing to do with common sense or the linguistic abilities of the Finnish people. After the latest decision, actually learning and teaching Swedish becomes even more difficult.

  • Tyty

    “I totally support learning Russian, German and other languages. I have never suggested the opposite.”
    – But you are de facto making it impossible to many, at least making it difficult to learn properly.

    “I think that people should be allowed to use their native language with the state.”
    – It doesn’t require everyone to learn Swedish. Actually mandatory Swedish has made the situation worse.

    “It is possible to live a full life without speaking Finnish. There is no reason to force Finnish on people.”
    – Maybe, if you don’t intend to work, or live in other cities. Doesn’t change the fact that most Finnish people never meet Swedish speaking Finns. Maybe because they keep in their own circles. Those who do not, speak excellent Finnish, or at least English. What have you against Finnish anyway?

    “The language has no inherent value.”
    – Unless it’s Swedish of course.
    “Society should become multilingual, not monolingual.”
    – Finns are multilingual and the state is de facto unilingual. They can’t get experienced judges to one court because they don’t speak Swedish. Most of the cases are tried in Finnish but…

    “Also, argumenting from oneself is not valid argumentation.”
    – My personal opinions matter when I make decisions for myself and for my children. That right to make decisions has been taken away from me. Those people who demand that all Finns study Swedish DO think their personal opinions are more important than others’. No one is taking THEM their right to make decisions.

  • read the text by Jaska

    So far all the arguments presented for the state-wide obligatory Swedish are invalid (they don’t actually support anything) and/or irrelevant (they support other obligatory languages just as well as Swedish).

    1. We have a historically important relationship with Sweden.

    Yes we do, but how does this justify a state-wide obligatory Swedish? In addition, parts of eastern and northern Finland have been much longer part of Russia than part of Sweden. On what basis would Western Finland alone be more important in defining the historical relations of modern Finland than would Eastern and Northern Finland, which have historically important relationship with Russia? If this argument is seen to support obligatory Swedish, it should also be seen to support obligatory Russian.

    2. The Swedish language is the key to the Nordic countries.

    First of all, why the Nordic countries would be more important area for Finland than other neighbouring countries? It is understandable that Swedish speakers feel togetherness with the Nordic countries, but why the Finnish speakers should adopt this identity of the Swedish speakers? Finnish speakers feel togetherness often with Karelia and Estonia for exactly the same reason, namely because of linguistic affinity. Secondly, the Russian language is the key to Russia, which is greater than the Nordic countries by both size and population. If this argument is seen to support obligatory Russian.

  • read the text by Jaska

    3. Swedish language is the gateway to other Germanic languages / Swedish language facilitates the learning of English and German.

    Just as much English and German are gateways to other Germanic languages, and in addition, they are more widely used languages than Swedish. If this argument is seen to support obligatory Swedish, it should also be seen to support obligatory English and German.

    4. We have obligatory mathematics, too.

    Swedish language does not correspond math or history, but foreign languages as a subject group corresponds math or history. As long as there is compulsory education, all school subjects are compulsory, math as well as foreign languages. However, there have not been presented any sustainable arguments as to why Swedish of all foreign languages should be obligatory throughout the country. If this argument is seen to support obligatory Swedish, it should also be seen to support any other obligatory language.

    5. Swedish language is an important part of the Finnish national identity.

    One should not confuse the state identity and the individual identity. Finland has two national languages, but very few citizens are bilingual at the individual level (two equally strong “first” languages). Swedish does not belong in any way in the identity of the Finnish speakers – it is just one foreign language among others. It is unethical to propagate and pressure citizens to adopt Swedish language or any other foreign language as part of their identity. If this argument is seen to support obligatory Swedish, it should also be seen to support obligatory Saami.

    I hope that such empty arguments would not be anymore used in the discussion.

  • read the text by Jaska


    Obligatory Swedish has failed to secure the services of public authorities in Swedish – it has only restricted the language selection of Finns. No benefits, only disadvantages. In addition the system is very unjust and oppressive, as 90 % of people are forced to become the service reserve for 5 %. Furthermore, so far we haven’t seen any valid and relevant arguments supporting the state-wide obligatory Swedish.

    The era of obligatory Swedish has come to an end: at the moment two-thirds of citizens want to get rid of obligatory Swedish. It is important to understand, that making Swedish optional with other foreign languages does not mean that nobody would anymore learn Swedish; that Swedish would not be anymore the other national language; and that the services in Swedish would come to an end.

    It would be much more effective to teach Swedish directly to those public authorities, which are expressed in the Language law. No more collateral victims (Finnish speakers with obligatory Swedish, who will never become public authorities), no more unmotivated language learners, and no more unjust, oppressing system for forcing the majority to serve the minority.

  • Not a foreign language

    I also hope that those arguments will be discarded. Similar strawmen are used to force Finnish on people. They are hardly relevant.
    The fact of the matter is that the same arguments that can be used against Swedish can be used against Finnish. Except for the “conspirational grumblings” from the axe-murder-supporting fallange of the the Association of Finnish Culture and Identity (whom I earlier called the FInnish Alliance, as i made a direct translation of the name) , of course.
    The utilitarian argument works both ways. The nationalistic argument works both ways.
    The saami language is a good example of the cultural withering which occurs, when a language is forced in to a weak minority status.
    Finnish and Swedish are not weak languages and therefore the government could stop enforcing them on its citizens.
    Finland is multilingual. There is no point in forcing a closed minded monolingual Finnishness on the people of Finland.

  • Not a foreign language

    btw, that Jaska chap seems to have some weird texts in his blog. He refers to himself as the James Randi of Finnish language politics (as if the bilingualism of the state is comparable to the impossible task of scientifically proving paranormal phenomena) and he compares the language policies of Finland to those of South Africa (as he takes the completely irrelevant identity politics to another level. as if a mandatory school subject is in any way comparable to institutionalized racism). He seems to be quite a character, but hardly the authority figure he is portrayed as here.
    I assume someone else is hyping him here. Who would stoop down to shamelessly plugging his own material here.

  • read the text by Jaska

    “Similar strawmen are used to force Finnish on people.”

    You do know that mandatory Swedish and mandatory Finnish both stop at the same time? The freedom of choice has always been freedom from mandatory Swedish and from mandatory Finnish.

    Ofcourse the reasons for studying Finnish in Finland won’t go away. When 90% of the population speaks Finnish as their mother tongue most people will study it also in the future.

  • read the text by Jaska

    “Finnish and Swedish are not weak languages and therefore the government could stop enforcing them on its citizens.”


    “Finland is multilingual. There is no point in forcing a closed minded monolingual Finnishness on the people of Finland.”

    Right. There has never been just one finnish identity. Most Finns do have Finnish language in their identity but many have Sami and/or Swedish and/or Russian …

    This is why we cannot have mandatory Swedish anymore!

  • read the text by Jaska

    Jaska is an expert in Finno-Ugric languges. His blog (mostly in Finnish) is worth reading.

  • not a foreign language

    I’ll answer all your posts here, as I am tired of scrolling.
    I wrote the word pair “racist rhetoric”, which you read only as “racist”. We should write “bias” or “prejudice” instead. This blog has a good post about language racism. I encourage you to read it. Finland is infamously poor in employing people of foreign origin or due to absurdly strict demands for proficiency in finnish. It is a form of ethnonationalist prejudice. Hence many educated foreigners have to work in low wage fields of manual labour.
    Playing the majority as a victim and simultaneously appealing to “might is right” is a ridiculous strategy.
    How exactly does one language prevent one from learning other languages? How does learning hurt ones identity?
    Swedish people have one vote. Maybe your false reading was caused by prejudices?
    Åland is not relevant as it is autonomous.
    The mandatory language requirements do not apply to foreign students. If they have gained citizenship and been at least partly educated in Finland, like my Iranian, Singaporean and Russian friends have, they will have both national languages mandatory as everybody else has. As I have said earlier, I think bilingual people could be spared from the other natlang. The Iranian and Russian have gone to Swedish schools. Same goes for my Estonian, Turkish and Brazilian friends who have gone to schools in Finnish. The Singaporean only speaks English but he is doing fine.
    I too believe ethnonationalism is a thing of the past.

  • cptpicard

    I know the history very well, I have actually always been quite critical of the compulsory Swedish based on most of the arguments presented. It’s actually a really difficult conversation to hold as there are so many non sequiturs being thrown around about “you never know, maybe you end up working in Sweden” — and when they try to pull the all the reverse-psychology and the rest of the bag of tricks, you just must make a stand against the entire style of discussion, not just the part about Swedish per se.

    I really hope not-a-foreign-language is trying to demonstrate a principled point about these “inherent values” of languages being essentially granted by government (really, I’d think mother-tongue speakers attribute their own subjective inherent values to languages), as there is just a wee bit of the Fenno-Swedish attitude present…

  • cptpicard

    While I sort-of follow your reasoning from the idea that one has to essentially treat Swedish equally as a subjectively experienced “value” that then becomes sufficiently, acceptably “inherent” and that one then *legitimately* “imposes” nationalistically on everyone who steps inside borders, a couple of things of note…

    “When a country is bilingual, as Finland is, the state will facilitate it´s citizens to interact with the state with both national languages. Hence Swedish and Finnish are equally useful in the narrow context of the Finnish state…”

    Yes, the state has obligations towards citizens as specified in the language law, so there are regional differences even there. As for other things… when a language is common somewhere as spoken natively by sufficient numbers of people, it just simply is useful. Go tell the French they’re imposing their language on others when they go to France. And yes… I work daily with immigrants speaking English, and fully understand learning Finnish is not easy and we get along fine without.

    “The road to multilingualism does not go from bilingualism to monolingualism.”

    I would be hard pressed to suggest to anyone that in order to get more multilingual (as a population, statistically so), one actually needs to prioritize in a certain manner such as we do in Finland. The moral argument from the perceived status of Swedish by individuals is completely separate from this, although they are often intentionally confused.

  • Maria

    Some people seems to believe that having to learn Swedish somehow won’t allow them to learn further languages. If you want to learn additional languages there is nothing keeping you from learning 2, 3 or even 4-5 languages by the time you finish university or whatever educational goals you have. I learned 2 “foreign” languages in the first part of elementary school (Finnish and English), then I added German in 8th grade and in “lukio” I also studied some French. Since I started to study in University I’ve also been learning Spanish.

  • Tyty

    First of all, not everyone will learn languages easily and every one of them takes time and effort to learn and keep up.

    I studied the maximum number of languages in school, four, and one of them was the mandatory Swedish that became my second strongest language. I would have rather studied four languages but WITHOUT Swedish and have some other language as my second strongest. I have had no use for the Swedish I know and have since forgotten most of it. I also have no interest to keep up my Swedish skills (unlike the languages I chose to study).

    There is no reason to have a mandatory Swedish to all Finns. Expecting 95% of the population (including minorities) to study a minority language so that one of the minorities gets service in their own language just doesn’t work. In fact it’s very arrogant. It’s also very bad for the Finnish society that severely needs people who speak different languages. SFP doesn’t have the best of Finland or Finns in their mind, they are just interested in power over Finnish speaking Finns.

  • Eero

    This is one of these odd half-thoughts that gets repeated in the pro-compulsory-Swedish memeplex as things that an “enlightened person must say”.

    Of course there is always an opportunity cost to studying something instead of studying something else. This is trivial to see: Otherwise it would be OK to study something else instead of Swedish, because “nothing would keep you from studying Swedish afterwards”. But this is not allright because… you know the argument is nonsense. You want to prioritize Swedish instead of the “something else”.

    I do not believe one bit that the synergy benefits one derives from Swedish are so large that it justifies its position as a language that must or should be studied before other languages. Of course, in my favoured system of two compulsory languages, the combination of English and Swedish would probably still be quite popular, so I do not expect the studying of Swedish to end altogether.

    Linguistically talented people like you (and actually, me) are one thing; but let’s say that we have some person who would be a brilliant engineer but struggles with languages. In our Finnish model he either does not become a brilliant engineer, or is supposed to be a brilliant engineer in Swedish… in Sweden, he would have the option of just taking more English. It’s all just a matter of exercising power by creating linguistic requirements.

  • Emilia

    I learnt Swedish when I was an exchange student years ago when I was in Sweden. However, when I moved to Finland, I picked up Finnish instead. Nobody around me is using Swedish anyway. I feel wrong to continue studying Swedish in Finland. I came from Hong Kong, a bilingual place where I had to study English and Chinese at the same time. It really feels weird to me that Swedish is used here, while it is not a colony itself.

    I totally understand about the history and reasons behind the whole matter. I do believe students should avoid Swedish if they want. Isn’t it true that Finland is a free country and everyone has their own right to do things they want? Why Japan can insist all foreigners to speak in Japanese but the Finns cannot?

  • Eero

    You need to familiarize yourself with what the concept of “national language” means to the pro-Swedishers. Before one understands that, the pro-Swedish argument can seem incredibly unable to treat other people (Finnish-speakers) with any kind of sense of normal fairness.

    In essence, for them us Finnish-speakers do not really exist as a legitimate group of people with a real mother tongue — typically we get told that we must stop speaking Finnish as well if we don’t study Swedish(!!). In particular if you suggest that there is an “ethnicity” there, you get a huge reaction calling people Nazis and what not, in the style of what was said in this thread above.

    What they actually want is that the appropriate way to see Finland is Sweden of the 1700s, and in a very Swedish-nationalist way. Everyone was supposedly Swedish, the “real language” of Sweden is Swedish, and the Finnish language is not significant culturally or even in an identity sense. It really is a red cloth to them to suggest that the Finnish-speakers (I really would like to say “Finns”, but hey, we don’t exist) should be considered in any way. In particular the society of the 1700s-1800s was not a “problem” as we were all Swedes and you could just start speaking Swedish if you wanted to get ahead.

    Of course, anything that happened after 1809 is just an aberration of history and Finnish-speakers should have just assimilated into proper Swedes..

  • Eero

    Actually, being a foreigner in Finland you’ll be in for an interesting phenomenon if you engage in this conversation further. The pro-Swedishers have this belief that they represent tolerance in general, and that for example if you don’t want to study Swedish, you have to be anti-immigration, anti-gay, anti-minority in general. Their ego becomes dependent on this idea that everyone who disagrees with the meaning and status of Swedish is the devil and that they stand for The Good.

    Therefore, recruiting immigrants for their cause is really important, and they will want you reaffirm that the status of Swedish — and believing any and all of the either self-serving or nonsense arguments — is the same thing as for example accepting your presence in the country. If you do not, they’ll get mad. If you do, they love you. Of course none of these associations hold, but hey, you just have to be “civilized enough” to understand… to quote Jörn Donner, “you [Finnish-speakers] do not have rights”.

  • Henrik

    “There is no reason to have a mandatory Swedish to all Finns.” Swedish is the national language of Finland, so there is that.

    “It’s also very bad for the Finnish society that severely needs people who speak different languages”

    How is it bad to know several languages? Besides many European countries like: Belgium, Denmark, Austria, France Germany, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, Spain, Sweden, Norway Switzerland, UK etc. uses more than one language. If you truly believe it is a burden then maybe Finland should then completely switch to English.

    Children have no problem learning several languages without being especially talented, it is a matter of exposing them to it early, and not when they are defiant teenagers. Ironically, if you look at it from a linguistic point of view Swedish and Portuguese are the two languages that gives you the best tools to learn other languages as they have so many sounds that are also used in other languages.

    Sure you haven’t used Swedish so then it seems useless to you. I have never used cosinus calculations outside the classroom (and I doubt most people have) should that then be dropped as well?

    Learning Swedish in Finland is also about learning the culture and history of your country.

  • Henrik

    As a foreigner in Finland (almost 10 years now) I have never come across what you describe. (Including the two years I did research on the Swedish-speaking Finns).
    What I have experienced is Finns expressing resentment towards Swedish-speakers and most Swedish speaker I have been in contact with (in the past 10 years) and independently told stories of how you will have to be careful with where you speak Swedish in order not to get beaten up or verbally assaulted (especially in the Helsinki area).
    What I can tell you is that a lot of foreigners like Swedish because it is much easier to read and understand (for Scandinavians it goes without saying, but also for Germans, Dutch and English speakers etc.).
    People often forget that Swedish was spoken in Finland many years before Finnish even existed as a language. The Finnish national anthem was written in Swedish and it is simple neglect of the law that Finnish speakers can’t and don’t want to speak Swedish – even when they are in jobs were it is a requirement. And what will happen if Swedish is no long a requirement? Then the Swedish-speaking Finns don’t have to learn Finnish any more either. What happens in courts, schools, hospitals etc. when native Finns can’t use their mother tough?
    It is horrifying to meet Finns that have had Swedish in schools for 10years that can’t (or won’t) say a single word in Swedish.

  • Beth barton

    As an exchange student from USA in 1960 1961 to pagasFinland I am sad to hear this argument about getting. Rid of Swedish it is certainly easier to learn and easier to learn for other scandiniavin languages as well as German I tried very hard to learn Finnish also but felt like minority when I heard you eat Finnish bread speak Finnish I feel both languages still have a place you are all Finnish be proud of it and embrace each other and preserve your culture against the incoming tide of foreingers

  • Tyty

    I don’t quite understand what you are saying but so what if Scandinavian languages are easier to learn after Swedish, I wouldn’t be studying them anyway. And for many studying Swedish makes it more difficult to learn German because the languages are so similar. I can’t speak German anymore because it gets mixed with Swedish. Besides, I am already a proud Finn. I don’t need Swedish for “preserving my culture” because it has nothing to do with my culture, it’s a foreign language to me.

  • Eero

    Beth, I don’t think I’m really following your argument, but you really need to understand that questioning the broader Finnish language policy is not the same thing as “getting rid of Swedish”. Swedish has not gone anywhere from Finland for centuries and it won’t disappear as people do have the right to maintain it as a mother tongue as far as government goes; what is actually happening nowadays is that Swedish is being pushed really hard on people who do not speak it. So what we have is an extension of a language agenda on the pretense that if you don’t go along with it, you’re trying to “get rid of” Swedish.

    If Swedish needs to be maintained (or more correctly, expanded) by controlling the rest of the population linguistically, it just shows that the importance of Swedish really is not all that it’s claimed to be. I have always found the kind of argument that “if you don’t agree to be made one of us, you’re trying to get rid of us” to be unsatisfactory. It just demonstrates that what the actual threat here is is actually the fact that they do not approve of us Finnish-speakers in the first place. You can see the attitude in a couple of the comments above — that “if you only knew immigrants (I do), you’d know Finnish is useless” and that “Finnish wasn’t even a language” (that Finnish is actually not historically-culturally legitimate, and hence we do not enjoy the same kind of ethical right of existence as the Swedish-speakers do). I’m glad there has been acceptance that most of the argumentation about Swedish is bullshit though — and that includes the “easier to learn German” kind of rhetoric. I did just fine in Swedish in school because I was fluent in English at a young age; I never learned German to a fluent degree because I just didn’t spend enough time on it, despite of all the Swedish.

    Having been called all kinds of names in language-political discussions, having heard that Karelians are “despised” on the coast, and having had to deal with all the weird arguments about “compulsory mathematics is there too!”, I have no interest in embracing anything. They can be Swedish all they want, but I will not apologize for being my own person, having my own interests and not giving in to nonsense just because it makes them feel better.

  • Tyty

    There is no more reason to have mandatory Swedish than to have mandatory Sami languages. Besides, Swedish has only been mandatory for 50 years anyway.

    The Finnish society uses one language, Finnish, because it is spoken by well over 90 % of the population, even most immigrants study it. It is not a burden for us to keep using Finnish.

    Learning Swedish hasn’t given me any tools to learn other languages, it only mixed with German and made studying it more difficult. Swedish has no sounds that would be useful in other languages but knowing French did give me some tools to study Russian.

    Calculations are studied all over the world. Is Swedish? Also I never learned anything about Finnish culture in Swedish classes. My culture is mostly Finnish speaking because that is the language I hear spoken around me and what my ancestors spoke as well. It even has more in common with the Russian culture than the Swedish one. History is studied in history classes and considering how Finnish was treated not so long ago, I really wouldn’t consider it a good argument for mandatory Swedish…

  • Tyty

    Yeah, funny how people resent people who try to make others to act as their servants. Because that is the main (spoken) reason why there is a mandatory Swedish: so that the Finnish speakers could serve Swedish speakers in Swedish. Most of them will never need it for anything (else) but still everyone has to study it. Most Finns like Finnish because it is their native language. Who cares what foreigners think? Many Finns speak good English anyway. I haven’t heard any assaults on people who have spoken Swedish but it’s nice to play the victim card.

    “People often forget that Swedish was spoken in Finland many years before Finnish even existed as a language.”
    I see you have been talking to Swedish speakers because that is simply not true. The reason why the anthem had Swedish words first was that the FINNISH speakers were neglected for centuries. Why Finnish speakers should speak Swedish, anyway? Are the Swedish speakers so much better than the rest of the population?

    Most Finnish speakers don’t speak Swedish for the simple reason that they never need it, even in jobs where it is a requirement. After all they require it on the Russian border, too. They speak with other Finns in Finnish and foreigners with English. The Swedish speakers can serve themselves in Swedish or learn Finnish, that’s what other people do, too, also Sami people and the children of the immigrant families who speak another language as their mother tongue.

  • Suomi1917finnish

    Swedish is a thing of the past, Finland is independent since 1917 and has its own language “Finnish” . In Finland most speak Finnish and English. A small group of people speak Swedish. In Sweden the Finnish is not required. WHY in Finland have to speak Swedish ? If you want to speak swedish you should travel to Sweden. Here is Finland and we speak Finnish.
    Sweden never done anything good for Finland , just read the stories and see how much cowered by many facts. Sweden thinks they are the center of the world .
    People need to be free to make their choices. The Swedish compulsory education needs to end , it doesn’t make sense to keep a language spoken by a half a dozen of people. The money invested in the Swedish education can be used in health.