Espoo City council has approved an ambitious plan to make English the third official language of the region.
In a late night vote, local councilors decided by a margin of 70-4 to greenlight a sweeping future plan for the region, which includes provisions to give English official language status.
Almost 270,000 people live in Espoo, making it Finland’s second largest city.
“We cannot make it an official language of Finland, but to my knowledge this is the first city in the country taking a decision like this, to make English an official language” says Markku Markkula (NCP), Chair of the Espoo City Board.
The council hopes the move will help attract more international business to the region, giving it a competitive edge for companies who want to bring in specialist foreign workers.
In practical terms, making English one of Espoo’s official languages will mean that services like local health care, local government websites and forms will all need to be available in English.
“So much services are already available in English” says Markkula. “But when it comes to some details of their own professions in the public sector, people are afraid if they make a mistake in English. What we are going to do […] we need to invest in learning processes for them to study English, and of course making priorities, deciding which services are needed most in English” he says.
Markkula says the council’s key decisions should be published in English as well, for transparency and ease of access to local foreign residents – many of whom can cast a vote in local council elections.
Espoo’s Sustainability Goals
The new focus on English for Espoo is part of the city’s ongoing strategy to make it ‘the most sustainable city in Europe’.
“It is all linked to the language” says Markkula. “We are are already talking about economic, environmental and social sustainability. But the fourth aspect is culture, including learning and English language skills” he adds.
At Monday night’s council meeting, politicians also backed a new four year plan for the city, which includes proposals to provide more English-language school places for children; free pre-school early learning for five-year olds; improving air quality in schools; plans to keep the local tax rate at 18%; and a target to make Espoo carbon-neutral by 2030.
The new proposals from the National Coalition Party-dominated council were supported by the Social Democrats as well.
“Espoo is a growing international city” says SDP councillor Habiba Ali.
“We have people coming here for work, like coders, and we don’t have to force them to speak Finnish. Competition is very tough here in Finland between cities. And now with this, there is one more reason for them to invest in Espoo. It will bring more business” she says.
“It encouraged immigrants not to learn Finnish”
Dissent came from the Finns Party, which had seven councillors in Espoo. However, three of them defected to the new Blue Reform parliamentary group, and they voted in favour of the proposals. The remaining four Finns Party councillors voted against.
“If you want to move to Finland of course you have to learn the language” says Simo Grönroos, Chair of the Finns Party Group on the Espoo City Council.
“There was also no estimate of costs [to implement the plan] but I think it costs too much”.
“International business can come to Espoo even if every page on the Espoo City website is not in English. And I think it encouraged immigrants not to learn Finnish if they can use English in every place” says Grönroos.
“We have a lot of unemployment in Finland, and there is too much talk that we need immigrant workers, when we have hundreds of thousands of Finnish unemployed people. Especially in Espoo, we have lots of Finns with good education, so it is quite funny to say we want more foreign workers, when we should put more money to employing Finns”.
Local Residents React
Some Finnish local residents in Espoo, contacted by News Now Finland late on Monday night, said they were in favour of the new plans to make English an official language.
“I think it’s a step to the right direction” says Tuomarila resident Mika Närhi.
“Nearly everyone under 40 in Finland already speaks English, but Swedish as a second language doesn’t benefit us. I think we should get rid of Swedish as our official second language and rather have English instead” he says.
Ali Al-Itawa, who lives in Leppävaara, says he likes the idea, because there are many people who live in Espoo that don’t speak Finnish or Swedish.
“They are part of this community, they work and pay their taxes, so in my opinion they should be entitled to have the possibility to use healthcare in English”.
“For the education, I think the current system is working really well. You have all three languages, and Finnish being the most important” he adds.
Tax Raise On The Table
One other main motion to be discussed at Monday’s Espoo Council meeting was a National Coalition Party plan to keep the Espoo tax rate set at 18%. Counter proposals then came to either raise or decrease the tax rate by a quarter of one percent.
After a couple of rounds of voting, where the different proposals were pitted against each other like the local council version of a reality TV show, councillors decided to keep the tax rate the same. “Basically whole Kokoomus [National Coalition Party] was keeping the tax rate at 18% on the last vote” says councilman Mikko Laakso (NCP).”