There are several European countries where more than one language is spoken, but Finland is one of only few that have more than one official language – Belgium, Switzerland, Ireland, Luxembourg and Malta being the others.
Finland is a country with three official languages: Finnish, Swedish and Sami. Sami is an official language in the Sami areas; in Enare, Enontekis, Sodankylä and Utsjoki municipalities. For hundreds of years Swedish has been spoken in Finland – long before this country gained independence. The first Swedish speakers were trappers, fishermen and hunters from Sweden who settled in what is now the archipelago of Southern Finland sometime between 1000 and 1250 A.D.
As the political machinations of Europe ground their wheels over the centuries, Finland was ruled by her Western neighbours until 1809, which largely explains the existence of Swedish as an official language here because it was used by the ruling class and in administration.
Finnish itself was only recognised as an official language in 1863. Interestingly, it was Swedish-speakers like Johan Snellman and Minna Canth who largely brought about the emergence of Finnish as a literary language. Today, some 290,000 Finns – or around 5.6 per cent of the population – have Swedish as their mother tongue.
The rights of Swedish-speakers are enshrined by law, at least in theory. While there will be a good chance of getting council services etc in Swedish in the southern and western coastal areas, good luck finding anything similar as soon as you head a few hours north or east of Helsinki.
Living without Finnish
There are some areas of Finland where Finnish is in fact rarely, if ever, spoken in day-to-day life. In Österbotten, on the west coast, and Nyland, between Åbo (Turku) and Helsinki, there are towns where the vast majority of inhabitants speak Swedish, and you could go days without hearing Finnish.
About 4 percent of the 432 Finnish communities are considered Swedish-speaking only, a figure that consists primarily of the population of the Åland islands (0.5 per cent of the country’s total). The majority of Swedish-speaking Finns are bilingual, or can at least manage in both languages.
Assuming that you’re capable in general of learning another language and that – as you are reading this – you speak English, Swedish is relatively easy to pick up. Compared with Finnish, the language seems almost reassuringly familiar. Partly this is because Swedish and English share the same Germanic roots, so have similar traits.
“We have students learning Swedish from all over the world,” says Jenny Kajanus from The Swedish Adult Education Centre of Helsinki (Arbis), “most of whom are married to Swedish-speaking Finns or need the language for work.” For Kajanus, Swedish is a relatively easy language to teach. “Apart from a few pronunciation issues, it is quite similar in many ways to English,” she says.
Despite it being Finland’s second language, the popularity of Swedish is increasing. “We currently have beginner’s courses starting every six weeks, all of which have been full recently. Learning Swedish broadens the possibilities for our students,” she says.