Hooray for voluntary Swedish!
By Saska Saarikoski
For some reason I have always had a soft spot for the Swedish language. Ever since I learned my first Swedish word - ingenting (“nothing”) – from a Swedish-speaking neighbour kid I have been infatuated with that happy language.
In my matriculation examinations I got top marks in Swedish, I did my military service in Dragsvik på svenska, and now I am a member of the Svenskans vänner i HS (“Friends of Swedish at Helsingin Sanomat”) study group.
But whenever I follow the language debate among Swedish-speaking Finns in the newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet I find myself feeling sudden affinity with Timo Soini.
Finland’s Swedish-speakers know how to discuss any other subject in an uplifting and civilised manner, but when the subject turns to the status of the Swedish language, the discussion turns into an irrational pseudo-debate, in which the only right answer comes first, and is followed by supporting arguments.
Anyone who tries to see beyond the issue, such as Nils Torvalds, deputy chairman of the Swedish People’s Party, who criticised mandatory Swedish for Finnish-language schoolchildren, gets hit with a bucket of slop.
One such bucket was dumped on Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi (Centre) by [former Speaker of Parliament and Social Democratic Party leader] Paavo Lipponen after Kiviniemi dared suggest that schoolchildren in the southeast of Finland might be allowed to study Russian instead of Swedish.
The linguistic zeal of this Savo native might seem surprising until one recalls that Lipponen, who traces his ancestry to Charlemagne, undoubtedly has many ties with Swedish noble families.
Finnish speakers tend to be fairly vocal on the subject in any case. In Saturday’s Hufvudstadsbladet, Centre Party Secretary Timo Laaninen said that Finland’s political parties should meet to agree on how not to speak about Swedish in schools during the election campaign. Why not draw up lists of other taboo subjects too?
Karl-Johan (Juhani) Lönnroth, the former director-general of the interpreters’ department of the European Commission, defended mandatory school Swedish in his debate article, saying that the language is a significant part of the history of Finland’s rule of law. Lönnroth was very disparaging about Russian.
“Russian is certainly an important, and a very expressive language – even though it lacks the global significance that French, Portuguese, Chinese or Spanish have. Russian might be needed by real estate agents, shop assistants, the service personnel of hotels and restaurants, as well as the elite which is involved in economic cooperation with Russia.”
So, Russian is a trade language? What about the common history of Russia and Finland? What about Russian culture? What about the hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists who enjoy visiting Finland?
A typical argument for the importance of Swedish is the shared history of Finland and Sweden. This love seems to be quite one-sided, however – or has anyone ever heard that our rule of law would have inspired vast numbers of Swedes to acquaint themselves with the Finnish language and culture?
For instance, the entire Swedish media has a sum total of one permanent correspondent in Finland.
I am a supporter of studying Swedish – not as a relic of history, but because it is fun to travel in the Nordic Countries, and because it is nice to talk to Swedish-speaking Finns in their own language. However, if my son wants to study Spanish, Chinese, or Russian instead of Swedish, I would say “Go ahead, the world is changing and that’s the world in which you will have to live!”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.1.2011
More on this subject:
COMMENTARY: Tourism needs are an inadequate reason to make Russian a compulsory school subject in Eastern Finland
SASKA SAARIKOSKI / Helsingin Sanomat