For hundreds of years until the early 19th century, Finland was a part of the Kingdom of Sweden. As a result, Swedish culture had a strong influence over Finland. First Catholicism and then Protestantism, numerous innovations and customs, and a large number of people of various social classes all came to Finland from Sweden. Even after Finland became a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire in 1809, the Swedish-speaking minority continued to live and work in the country. During the 19th century, Finnish Swedes, who often had a better education and a higher social status than many of those whose first language was Finnish, were strongly involved in the creation of the narrative of Finnish nationhood. Many of them went on to translate their names into Finnish, and this practice continued well into the first half of the 20th century. As a result of intermarriage, vast numbers of Finns have at least some Swedish ancestry.
The Swedish cultural presence continues to influence the law—even to this day. Indeed, the national languages of Finland are Finnish and Swedish, as defined by the Finnish Constitution. Accordingly, everyone has the right use either Finnish or Swedish before courts of law and other authorities, and to receive official documents in either of the two languages. Both languages are taught in schools, with the goal of ensuring that all Finnish citizens are able to speak them at least on an adequate level. In reality, Finnish-speakers quite often only speak very little Swedish, while some Finnish Swedes struggle with Finnish grammar and vocabulary. However, there are still a great many people who are fluent in both languages.
The situation of Finland having two national languages continues to cause debate. Its proponents find that it is a logical consequence of Finland’s history, and that it benefits the entire population by strengthening the country’s ties to Sweden – ties that are highly important for both of them.
In addition, it is seen as a sign of Finnish commitment to Nordic co-operation, for Norwegians and Danes are usually able to understand Swedish, since these Indo-European, Germanic languages are very similar to each other. Finnish, on the other hand, is a Finno-Ugric language, and closer to Estonian and Hungarian than, for example, Danish. The ability to speak Swedish allows Finns to communicate with a huge number of Nordic citizens, which should be seen as something highly useful.
The opponents of the bilingual model, however, claim that English could easily be used to replace Swedish in everyday Finnish life within the context of Nordic diplomacy. Since only approximately 5.4 % of Finns are Swedish-speakers, it is argued that the bilingual system simply makes no sense. Others say that instead of teaching Swedish, schools should make use of that time by teaching Russian, especially in the eastern parts of the land. One opposition also claims that Swedish-speakers are simply oppressing the majority by forcing their foreign language on those who have no use for it.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, many nationalists are vehemently opposed to the current legal position of Swedish. Indeed, supported by their ahistorical version of flawed patriotism, they are quick to talk about the rights of the majority. They invoke the memory of Swedish rule as an example of foreign interference in Finnish affairs, as if Finland had never been able to benefit from its ties to Sweden. It must be noted, however, that not all the opponents of the current system are nationalists – indeed, this phenomenon is not limited to any specific political ideology or social group.
Learning another language is ultimately always a good thing, and Finns have every reason to cherish both Finnish and Swedish. Thus, it is unclear why the legal status of Swedish should be seen as something that is oppressive or harmful. Finland would not be Finland in any meaningful sense without its Swedish-speakers, and they, on the other hand, generally have as strong a sense of being Finnish. The bilingual model is a sign of Finnish commitment to international co-operation, and it is a wonderful symbol of the country’s Nordic identity and of its deep ties to Europe.
Erik Immonen is the EST Ambassador to Finland. Erik is studying World Politics at the University of Helsinki, and he is serving as a board member at the Social Democratic Students’ Association of Helsinki. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.