Finnish–Swedish bilingualism: How does equality work between highly unequal portions of the population?

Wed, February 3, 2010 | BUR 337

5:30 PM - 6:30 PM

There has been a fierce debate in Finland for several decades concerning the status of the Swedish language. It has been a source of discontent that the country must maintain expensive public services in two languages, and especially the fact that all Finnish citizens study a mandatory subject called “second domestic language” at school is increasingly criticized.

            Roughly 90% of the population speak Finnish as their mother tongue, whereas 5.5% are Swedish speakers (thus, the percentage of Swedish speakers in Finland is less than half the percentage of Spanish speakers in the USA). Finnish and Swedish have an equal status with regard to legislature, public services, and education. This alleged equality works remarkably well in some areas—especially in state administration and higher education—but less so in others.

            Public services and education are (mostly) available in Swedish, but even in these areas problems do arise. In non-publicly organized areas, services are much better available in Finnish than in Swedish, especially outside traditionally Swedish-speaking areas. For various reasons, it is often difficult for children to build a bilingual identity even if they are born and raised in bilingual families. In the worst case, these problems together lead to “semilingualism”: the child doesn’t acquire either one of the languages completely, and fails to keep the languages apart.

Sponsored by: Germanic Studies

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