Finland criticised over minority language failures

Council of Europe experts say there's been some improvement in the situation for minority languages, but a lot more work still needs to be done.

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File picture showing different letters of the alphabet / Credit: iStock

The Council of Europe has criticised Finland for not doing enough to promote and protect minority languages like Karelian, Swedish and Sámi.

In a recent report the Council said while there had been some progress, many of Finland’s lesser-spoken languages are simply being neglected.

The report itself was six years late, after Finnish authorities didn’t send annual updates to the Council, which said the delays “seriously hampers the effectiveness of the monitoring mechanism”.

A leading proponent of minority languages at Helsinki University says he agrees with that assessment as well.

“It tells us that this issue has not been considered important enough, and the most important activity to protect minority languages is the annual reporting” says Professor Riho Grünthal, from the Department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies.

Scope of the language report

The Council of Europe’s committee looked at Karelian, Russian, Romani, Yiddish and Tatar language use in Finland; as well as the situation with Swedish, Inari, Skolt and North Sámi.

Under the Finnish Constitution, Finnish and Swedish are listed as the official languages of the nation, although it also says that Sámi and Roma people as well as “other groups” have the right to maintain and develop their own language and culture.

Experts looked at Finnish legislation, education, and other areas that could possibly have an impact on minority languages including district court reform and the government’s upcoming social and welfare reform known as sote.

File photo of a chalkboard with the question talar du svenska?, do you speak Swedish? / Credit: iStock

Swedish language in Finland

The most widely spoken minority language in Finland is Swedish, and the Council’s new report finds that as a national language, Swedish is still in a strong position.

There were still problems uncovered, including shortcomings in the use of Swedish by judicial and administrative authorities, and in healthcare and social services where Swedish speakers have the right to speak their own language.

The report finds that most of the problems are caused with staff don’t speak good enough Swedish to interact with members of the public.

While there is a national strategy in place to promote Swedish language use, the report finds that many local authorities are still not aware of the rights that Swedish speakers have, and that there are worsening attitudes towards Swedish-speaking Finns including documented cases of intolerance by the police.

The report notes that only 40% of Swedish speakers who wanted to speak Swedish with police officers were able to do so.

Acknowledging the shortcomings, Finnish Police have launched their own programme to improve language skills, teaching a basic course in Swedish at the Police University College, and paying a bonus to officers who can give bilingual service.

Romani language situation

The situation of Romani in Finland is currently weak, and a revitalisation programme is urgently needed to give the language a boost, according to the Council of Europe’s report.

While university-level education in Romani has been introduced in Helsinki, there’s very limited education opportunities at school for Romani children in other parts of the country.

“An other important point is to make sure the language passes to the next generation, so that they will also have the right to study in their traditional language” Professor Riho Grünthal tells News Now Finland.

“It has already been quite a while when children used to talk, and learned to talk, the  Romani language” he adds.

The new report finds widespread reports of Romani-speaking children being bullied in school, which can lead to low motivation and higher drop-out rates.

Revitalising Karelian in Finland

There’s an estimated 25,000 Karelian speakers in Finland, and about 5,000 of them use the the different Karelian dialects on a daily basis, mainly in the south east of the country.

A new action plan to revitalise Karelian was launched in 2017, and renewed again this year, with a total of €300,000 being earmarked for the projects.

Up to 50 students each year study Karelian at the University of Eastern Finland, and two societies have been working on dictionaries, apps and other teaching material to make it more accessible to young people.

But still, Karelian speakers have expressed their frustration to the Council of Europe’s experts that their language is not specifically mentioned in the Finnish Constitution, and say it would give more visibility to Karelian speakers, and help raise awareness with authorities about linguistic rights.

File picture of Sámi flag against blue sky / Credit: Getty

More improvements needed for Sámi languages

The most positive aspect of the new report was improvements in provisions for Sámi languages, although there were still many problems still to be addressed.

While there has been more development of teaching materials, and some ‘language nests’ have been set up to teach younger children, there’s still problems with finding enough qualified teachers, and the Council of Europe finds the use of Sámi languages in healthcare and social services is limited.

“A third matter for minority language protection is to support public use of the language” says Professor Grünthal.

The Council’s report says that education in Sámi languages should be extended into parts of Finland outside the traditional Sápmi homeland area, where more than 60% of Sámi people live.

“The fact that most Sámi speakers live now outside the Sámi Homeland challenges the territorial application of the legal provisions protecting the Sami languages, especially in the fields of education and social and healthcare services” experts note in the report.