Finland celebrates its independence (from Russia) on 6 December. As a Finn living in Belgium, I will celebrate it today by reflecting for a moment on the language situation in Finland and what it has meant to me.
I grew up in Finland, a Nordic country with nearly 5.4 million inhabitants. Our national languages are Finnish and Swedish. Other language groups recognised in the constitution are three Sami languages, Finnish Romani and the Finnish sign language. At the end of 2010, 4 857 903 (90.4%) people had Finnish as mother tongue, 291 153 (5.4 %) Swedish and 1 832 (0.03 %) Sami (there are three Sami languages spoken in Finland) (Statistics Finland, 18.3.2011). In addition to these, there are of course other foreign language groups, out of which Russian is the largest. In Finnish comprehensive school, pupils learn at least Finnish, Swedish and English. Därför pratar ja också svenska. I don’t, however, get to practise my Swedish very much in Finland because the Swedish speaking Finns, finlandssvenskorna, are a small minority and as a rule speak very good Finnish. In spite of the fact that Swedish is an official language in Finland, most people speak much better English than Swedish. My first foreign language was English, too, which I started learning at the age of nine. Swedish and German came only later.
While Swedish language is only spoken by a small minority, it has retained its historically strong position. In comparison, the situation of the Sami has been far from ideal. As the coordinator of pre-school education of Sami language in Utsjoki community in Northern Finland puts it: “In the past it was forbidden to speak Sami at school. To make up for past suppression, the authorities of Norway, Sweden and Finland now make an effort to build up Sami cultural institutions and promote Sami culture and language. Still, the work has only just started.” (The Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity website). Luckily, several projects, such as the one in Utsjoki, are now running to enhance the language learning of the Sami such as this minority language pre-school education project.
I feel that as a Finn, I’ve been privileged with regard to access to education. The quality of the Finnish education has also been noted abroad, even more so after the good results in the PISA research. I will not analyse the reasons behind this in depth, but I think that at least the small group sizes, individual coaching and a freedom of choice, even at reasonably young age must all contribute to a good quality of education. At university level, if you want to, you can even choose minor subjects that have nothing or very little to do with your main subject (at least at first glance). That gives a very broad look on things.
Now, living in Belgium, I have also learned Dutch (or Flemish, as some might say). Here the language question is still very actual and even problematic. Belgium has now finally, after 541 days of negotiations, appointed the next Prime Minister, the French-speaking Elio Di Rupo, who will take the oath of office today (that’s the latest news anyway!). And, to end on a lighter note, today we also celebrate Sinterklaas in Belgium. Multiple languages, multiple reasons to celebrate!