Finland a bastion of bilingualism
New York Times
Jan. 8, 2006

Nation caters to citizens who speak Swedish

Lizette Alvarez

EKENAS, Finland - In most parts of the world, language is a fiery and divisive issue.

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 14,500 residents.

Wander the streets, cafes, marinas, schools, health centers and government buildings of Ekenas, and the chitchat is all Swedish (actually a dialect of Swedish).

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.