Opinion piece published in the Helsinki Times 12.9.13
This Autumn, the parliament will make a decision on a citizen’s initiative on making Swedish an optional subject for Finnish-speaking pupils.
Judging by online quizzes for electoral candidates, one could be forgiven for believing that the initiative will find a large number of advocates among MPs. Despite this, it is unlikely that the proposal will pass. The Education and Culture Committee will decide whether it will draw up a report on the matter, which would then be subjected to a vote in parliament’s plenary session. Constitutional statutes, if not party discipline, are likely to prove a stumbling block to the passing of the initiative.
We in Finland lack the kind of tradition in political debate that is typical of for example Britain, with analytical discussion here often deteriorating to the level of accusations and juxtapositions. And that has been the case here as well. The opponents of compulsory Swedish education have been labelled as parochial populists while its supporters claim to have a deeper understanding of our bilingual cultural heritage. Swedish-speakers are naturally fighting in their own corner and some politicians step back from committing themselves because voicing an unwelcome opinion might lose them the Swedish-speaking vote.
I am in favour of making learning Swedish optional on certain conditions. Before my parliamentary career, I worked in international commerce and it was only very rarely that Swedish skills came in handy. Instead of a marginal language spoken by a small number of people, children should be taught global languages, such as Chinese and Spanish. I spent my childhood in eastern Finland where it was exceptional to hear Swedish spoken outside the classroom. Russian, however, was a different story.
Unfortunately, apart from Sweden, Swedish does not work as a lingua franca even with the other Nordic countries, with Norwegian and Danish – not to mention Icelandic – being very difficult even for Swedish-speaking Finns to understand. I find it hard to fathom why Finns should allow themselves to be put at a disadvantage at negotiations, speaking a language they do not know well enough, but others do. It would be fairer to choose for example English as the language for negotiations.
I consider myself a friend of Swedish, still studying the language, owning a holiday home in Swedish-speaking Inkoo and having put two of my four children through language immersion already in daycare. This model imported to Finland from Canada has proved that children are receptive to languages from a very young age.
It would make sense to teach the basics of Swedish to as many children as possible starting younger than now, with the language becoming optional at an early stage. We might get fewer students studying Swedish but those who start learning it when still small and carry on doing so out of interest will acquire excellent language skills. People who speak Swedish well can for example give better care to Swedish-speaking elderly whose right to obtain services in their own mother tongue is guaranteed in the constitution. And what about the rights of the Finnish citizens coming from other language backgrounds? Just in Espoo, where I live, there are children participating in the tuitition of 34 different native languages.
Language is a window to a culture and Swedish is not an exception. It is a richness that should be nurtured but not forced on anyone.
Member of Parliament