Finland a bastion of bilingualism
New York Times
Jan. 8, 2006
Nation caters to citizens who speak Swedish
EKENAS, Finland - In most parts of the world, language is a fiery and divisive
Finland, a country with an unshakable sense of fair play, offers a
counterbalance to that kind of acrimony. If anything, Finland bends over
backward, with little dissent and at great cost, to make its 260,000 Swedish
speakers feel comfortable.
No sooner did Finland win its independence from Russia in 1917 than it ensured
in its constitution that Swedish speakers, who controlled much of Finland, would
be granted equal rights culturally, educationally and socially.
It was a gesture of comity and pragmatism that overlooked that for five
centuries Sweden had controlled Finland and scorned the Finnish language.
Swedes deemed it mysterious and second-class.
The result of that constitutional mandate, few would disagree, is that Finland
is home to the world's most pampered minority group, the endangered
Swedish-speaking Finn. Even as their numbers and influence dwindle, from a high
of 14 percent of the population in 1880 to 5 percent today, their rights, for
the most part, continue to flourish.
Finland has two official languages, Swedish and Finnish. One language takes
precedence over the other, depending on how many of the people living in a given
community speak Finnish or Swedish as their mother tongue.
Mostly, the country is made up of Finnish-language communities; only 4 percent
of the country's 432 communities are considered Swedish only.
Another 10 percent are bilingual, 21 of them with a Finnish-language majority
and 23 of them with a Swedish-language majority, like Ekenas, a coastal jewel of
Wander the streets, cafes, marinas, schools, health centers and government
buildings of Ekenas, and the chitchat is all Swedish (actually a dialect of
More than 80 percent of the residents in Ekenas speak Swedish.
As in all other bilingual communities, the government offers Swedish speakers
their own schools, day-care centers, health care centers, local government
councils, newspapers and television and radio shows. Signs are written in
Swedish at the top, Finnish at the bottom.