Bilingualism in Finland

Finland has a 5 per cent Swedish-speaking minority and is officially a bilingual country, so maps nearly always bear both the Finnish and Swedish names for cities and towns. For example, Turku (Finnish) and Åbo (Swedish) are the same city, even though the names differ totally. Many other things also bear two names, such as streets, roads and suburbs. Roads, for example, can be especially confusing—what first appears on a map to be a road that changes its name is, in most cases, one road with two names. This is common in the Swedish-speaking areas on the southern and western coasts, whereas inland Swedish names are far less common. In the far north in Lapland, you’ll almost never see Swedish, but you will occasionally see signage in Sámi instead.

bilingualism in Finland

There is just one place in the whole of Finland where the official language is Swedish alone. This place is the Åland Islands, the largest archipelago of 6,500 islands, and lies off the south-west coast between Finland and Sweden. It has been an autonomous, demilitarized region since 1921, has 26,000 inhabitants, its own provincial government and flag, own radio and TV station, and exquisite stamps.

For the Finnish speakers, Swedish is not viewed as a foreign language, but as the second domestic language. Those with Swedish as their mother tongue must learn Finnish by the same token. Therefore, from a young age Finns are brought up speaking both languages. Children start learning a foreign language in the third grade, and this is most often English. Nowadays, Russian is very seldom chosen, with French being slightly more popular but seldom taken up. German comes second to the choice of English. There is no obligation to learn more foreign languages, but many do. Youngsters hate the compulsory Swedish, but the fact is that a great majority of Finns can speak Swedish if they have to, some clumsily maybe, some more fluently. However, getting to grips with Swedish does allow the Finns a more streamlined introduction to the main European languages as they derive from the same Indo-European basis.