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Finland is a bilingual country of 5.3 million inhabitants. Its official languages are Finnish and Swedish. Each of the two linguistic communities has the right to receive an education in their native language. Finnish, which is the native tongue of the majority (94%) of the population is different from most other European languages in that it is barely spoken at all outside of Finland. Around 5.5% of the population are Swedish native speakers, while less than 0.5% speak Sami as their native language.


Legal framework

The Finnish legislative system has three levels:

  • the Constitution sets out the national languages and the principle of the right to choose one’s language;
  • the law on language defines how the law is applied on a broad scale. It gives Sami its own separate status and is based around individual rights and specific service regimes depending on the linguistic status of the regional administration;
  • five specific regulations create a complementary normative environment in areas which are key to the application of the law. Concrete methods as to how the bilingual regime should be applied are given elsewhere in 35 legal texts which cover all the sectors of public life.

The Constitution of 11 June 1999

Article 17 of the Constitution of 11 June 1999 states that the national languages of Finland are Finnish and Swedish. The equal status of the two languages is guaranteed in the justice system (this is specifically mentioned) and all elements of public services, including independent offices and agencies that report to public service organisations. The authorities, both at local and central level, are obliged to handle requests in the language in which they are made and make information and forms available in both Finnish and Swedish. All Finnish citizens therefore have the right to deal with the public authorities in either of the two national languages. The Constitution also specifies that it is the responsibility of the authorities to guarantee the effective implementation of linguistic rights in the fields of education and social life – the citizen should not have to demand it. In addition to this, the Constitution cites three minority languages : Sami, Romani and sign language.

 The languages law of 1 January 2004 and how it is applied

The second languages law, voted in on 11 February 2003, reformed the provisions of the 1922 law, which had already been the subject of technical amendments in 1935, 1975 and 1996. It was aimed at making the system more efficient and essentially to guarantee the official existence of two national languages and set the conditions for how they should co-exist and be used. It restricts itself to the public sphere and does not have any control over exchanges between private persons. The local authority, an essential brick in the administrative and political system in Finland, therefore plays an important role in implementing an effective bilingualism. A local authority area is declared officially bilingual, and required to provide a palette of services in two languages, as soon as any linguistic minority within it reaches at least 3,000 citizens or 8% of the population. Local authorities which also have responsibility for education would then be required to provide services either in both languages or “in such a way as to favour translation”. The Government Council releases fresh statistics on the linguistic status of local authority areas every ten years. Current statistics, which are valid until 2012, show that out of 431 Finnish local authority areas, 19 are designated as Swedish-speaking only, 44 as bilingual (of which 21 have Finnish as the majority language and 23 Swedish) and 383 as Finnish-speaking. In 2005, Swedish-speaking areas represented around 5.5% of the population (285,700 speakers), as compared to 10.1% in 1930 and 14.3% in 1880.

The public radio service includes three national Swedish-speaking stations and five regional stations. 10% of programmes on national TV are broadcast in Swedish across two channels – around 18 hours a week. The language of command for the army is Finnish, but armies must contain at least one Swedish-speaking batallion. Central authorities, embassies and consulates are automatically bilingual. Some prisons have bilingual sectors. Universities are required to reserve a certain number of places for Swedish-speaking students, according to the system of numerus clausus. This policy comes under frequent criticism, since it is seen to conflict with the concept of equal access to studies. Some faculties have specifically Swedish-speaking departments. There is also one university in Turku and one renowned commercial school in Helsinki that are exclusively Swedish-speaking. To guarantee an effective bilingualism, the State intervenes to ensure that an obligatory number of doctors and lawyers are trained in Swedish. These quota policies have not been officially criticised but are fiercely debated on, for example, Internet forums.

The law on language applies to all public administrations, whether they are State or local authority run. There are two parts of the linguistic regime which do not fall under its remit: higher education (the 645/1997 universities law legislates on language in this area) and cults (the linguistic regimes of the two State religions are governed by the 1054/1993 law on cults). Five specific regulatory apparatuses complete the general provisions of the law on language:

  • the education system has responsibility for setting the languages of teaching and degrees as well as the teaching of modern foreign languages;
  • the culture sector has responsibility for regulating the use of languages in radio, theatres, image broadcasting, libraries, youth organizations and sports;
  • the law on public health sets out linguistic rights for health care access;
  • the use of languages in the field of judicial inquiries and the functioning of tribunals is regulated by the relevant laws in these domains;
  • finally, regulations must be in place to ensure that checks on the level of linguistic competence of personnel working in public authorities are carried out correctly.

Essentially, the objective is essentially to ensure a balance between the two national languages in public life, more than to promote them in reference to any implied threat posed by other foreign languages. This is why the omnipresence of English in advertising language is not considered a major problem. The principle of bilingualism in consumer information is well respected on the whole – the only complaints come from the Swedish-speaking minority. In the area of scientific discourse, the use of English is uniformly accepted and rarely complained about. Indeed, generally, the growing part that English has to play is not seen as a threat to the national languages.


Institutional body with responsibility for developing, implementing and controlling linguistic legislation

The law of 1st January 2004 defines the framework within which the application of linguistic legislation will be monitored. In addition to the regulations mentioned earlier, which are the responsibility of the five Ministries concerned, the law provides that the public powers have a duty to use all appropriate measures to ensure that the national, linguistic heritage is protected and promoted. All public organisations share this responsibility for ensuring that the law is respected. The Ministry of Justice has responsibility for monitoring the implementation and application of the law and to make any recommendations relating to this. Where an infraction or omission is noted, it is required to suggest corrective measures. However, no coercive measures are provided for. The principle of responsibility and information is accorded a greater status than sanctions.

The Government Council has responsibility for examining a detailed legislative report on the linguistic situation and application of the law. A Linguistic Affairs Delegation has been created for this purpose within the Ministry of Justice. It undertakes the monitoring and provides the report. It gives recommendations on the informative and training actions necessary to ensure the law is properly applied, suggests new measures for promoting the national languages and ensures that the national languages are protected on an international scale. In addition to the two national languages, the report must also discuss the Sami and Romani languages, as well as sign language.

In its first report, published in 2006, the delegation worked hard to provide a comprehensive overview of the linguistic situation and drew attention many times to the lack of suitable tools for gathering statistics.

The final body involved in meeting the provisions of the legislation is the Kotimaisten kielten tutkimuskeskus, a national language research centre. Under the aegis of the Ministry of Education, this centre, which employs around one hundred people, has responsibility for coordinating research on the official languages: Finnish, Swedish, Sami, Romani and sign language. It carries out research in the areas of linguistic adjustment, lexical issues, neologisms and monitoring the evolution of languages.


Legal provisions concerning the linguistic integration of migrants and public training facilities available to them

With 108,346 foreign national inhabitants, according to the most recent census statistics, Finland has a very low immigration rate which is barely even noticeable in daily life outside the capital city and certain other areas.

The Finnish State financially supports associations which develop cultural and linguistic integration programmes (263, according to recent statistics). For example, the main Russian language newspaper Spektrum benefits from a grant provided by the Ministry of Education. The main friendship associations, some of which are very old, also receive a considerable amount of public funding. Foreign nationals can also benefit from free Finnish language training if they are looking for a job.

The city library in Helsinki has since 1995 been working on an official, national mission to develop public reading services in the main immigrant language. A cultural centre (Caisa) has been created with the specific aim of promoting plurilingualism, cultural diversity and the cultures of immigrant communities.

For more than ten years now, special efforts have been made to improve the quality and nature of Finnish and Swedish language teaching available to foreign nationals within the education system. All foreign national pupils who have been officially recognised as having a native language which is neither Finnish nor Swedish can take an exam in “Finnish or Swedish as a Second Language” instead of the obligatory national language exam at the baccalaureate. This exam has been specially designed for non-native speakers. In legal terms, the exam confers the same rights, most notably for being accepted by a university, as the standard exam for Finnish or Swedish native speakers. “Finnish or Swedish as a Second Language” has also become a teaching discipline with programmes and objectives of the same status as other disciplines.


Principal legal provisions in force concerning the use of regional or minority languages

The 1999 Constitution specifically grants the Sami and Roma peoples the right to practice and develop their languages. It also cites the need to support the use of sign language for deaf-mutes. Anyone who needs interpretation or translation help as a result of a handicap is guaranteed this by law.

As far as the Sami are concerned, a special regime was inaugurated by the law on language enacted in 2003, which came into force on 1 June 2004. Paragraph 8 states that “the use of the Sami language in official situations and the responsibilities of the public authorities in this regard are regulated by specific provisions.” The archipelago of the Åland Islands has its own linguistic regime as a result of autonomous status granted to it in this regard by law 1144/1991. The law on language does not apply here, and Swedish is the only official language.

Paragraph 9 of the law of 1 June 2004 stipulates that the use of languages other than Finnish, Swedish and Sami is regulated by regulatory provisions which allow them to be used in tribunals and relationships with the administrations. In practice, the rights guaranteed by the law to use the Sami language in exchanges with the administrations, both spoken and written, are met by the implementation of translation and interpretation services – which do not of course require local personnel to have any knowledge of the language. Only 10% of public administration employees are currently able to provide services in the Sami language. It is imperative that translation and interpretation services are financed and available in a number of different situations. Three local authority areas are officially Sami-speaking (bilingual with Finnish): Utsjoki, Inari and Enontekiö. The northern part of Sodankylä is also bilingual Finnish/Sami. There are pronounced linguistic variations in the idioms of these three areas. Around 8,000 people actively speak the language.

The Roma community, which numbers 10,000 according to recent statistics, has been recognised as a minority community since the 1940s. The new law on language also recognises the right to use and be educated in the Romani language.

Foreign nationals can request a minimum level of teaching in their native language within the education system, as well as linguistic help when accessing healthcare. In 2004, there were 108,436 foreign nationals living on Finnish soil, of which 24,626 were Russian and 13,978 were Estonian. The two latter are the largest immigrant populations and have grown significantly over the last ten years.


Financial support mechanisms aimed at encouraging the use of national and regional or minority languages

The two national languages, by virtue of their status, benefit from a whole range of measures designed to encourage their use and from a growing context in which it is difficult to decipher exactly how much money goes into supporting them. The active role played by cultural foundations helps to give us an idea of the weight that is accorded to language in the perception of cultural identity and the funds which are allocated to developing it. All the cultural support organisations, particularly youth associations, remain strongly marked by the national ideal which prevailed when they were first created at the end of the 19th century. Language is a strong and undeniable characteristic of this identity.

It is generally agreed that the third language to benefit from an official status, Sami, cannot fully fill the position which has been assigned to it due to a lack of sufficient human resources. This is particularly noticeable in the fields of education and administration.


Teaching foreign languages within the education system

The national bilingualism and linguistic specificities of Finnish have historically created an environment which is ripe for the development of motivation to learn foreign languages.

The education system as two objectives when it comes to languages: to maintain Finnish/Swedish bilingualism and to offer as diverse a range of foreign language teaching as possible. Thus, it is compulsory to learn a first foreign language as well as the second national language. In practice, it is not unusual to meet graduates who have learnt three or four modern foreign languages in addition to their native language.

Finnish society has rapidly internationalised over the past twenty years and one of the most important factors for change has been joining the European Union (EU), which Finland did in 1995. In 2001, during the European Year of Languages, the EU carried out a study on the level and study of languages in its member states. The survey revealed that the Finnish knew more languages than the European average and thought that it was essential to understand languages other than English.

National linguistic policy and its related language programmes have enabled the choice of languages at different levels of the school system to be enlarged and diversified. Nonetheless, nine out of eleven students study English as their first compulsory language and there is little sexual equality: girls are much more interested in learning languages. In the mid-1990s, secondary school students learned on average 2.7 foreign languages and girls passed more than half of their optional foreign language exams at the baccalaureate.

Current situation

 Language A (modern foreign language 1) is a compulsory subject which must be started during the first three years of primary school (between seven and nine years old in Finland). IT must be taught for two or three lessons a week (one lesson is 45 minutes), or for a minimum of 304 lessons during the six years of primary school. In practice, only 7% of pupils start a foreign language at seven years of age, with most (81%) starting at nine years old. An optional language A2 can be started at primary school from the age of 10 for a maximum of 228 lessons.

 The second national language, known as B1, is obligatory from the beginning of secondary school, but has not been examined as part of the baccalaureate since 2006. In addition, other optional languages (B2, B3) can be studied from the end of secondary school and onto college. Over the three years of college, students must choose 228 compulsory language A lessons (usually A1 and A2) and may choose 76 more in-depth lessons, 190 compulsory language B1 lessons and may choose a further 76 optional lessons, and finally can, if they wish, take up to 608 lessons in other modern foreign languages. As a result, some candidates take exams in six modern foreign languages at the baccalaureate.







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