As rising immigration increasingly puts Scandinavia’s reputation for tolerance to the test, Sweden’s largest national minority fears its language rights are threatened and children will grow up with little or no knowledge of their mother tongue.
Finnish-speaking Swedes, known as Sweden Finns (sverigefinnar), make up more than 7% of the country’s 10 million-strong population and are entitled to Finnish lessons in school since Sweden reversed an earlier postwar approach of forced assimilation.
But complaints that minority language policies are not being respected are mounting. Reports for the Swedish government in the past 12 months point to failures with respect to Sweden Finns in particular, but paint “a dark picture” of the situation for national minority languages in Sweden as a whole.
There is a “severe danger” that the Finnish language will die out in the country, said Sari Pesonen of the Institute of Slavic and Baltic languages at Stockholm University, a co-author of recent research. “The signals we get from teachers, for example, they tell us that the situation is bad. Something needs to be done, and quickly.”
Pupils at one school in Gothenburg have reported being told to stop communicating in Finnish altogether. Nelli Tiikkaja, nine, said teachers had told her not to speak her mother tongue.
“They tell us to stop speaking Finnish if they hear us,” she said. “That feels sad. It doesn’t feel good when I’m not allowed to speak Finnish, because for me it is the easiest language.”
Other children at the school have also told her to stop, Nelli said. “Sometimes they threaten us. A boy in the other class once said he would punch us if we kept speaking Finnish ... It feels like they want to destroy the whole Finnish language.”
Nelli is not alone. Parents of Finnish-speaking children at the school took their complaints to the head, whose investigation confirmed that, although details were uncertain, one member of staff, who left in February 2017, had tried to stop students speaking their native language.
“It’s not good that students hear they’re not allowed to speak their mother tongue,” said Ingela Bertheden, the headteacher, adding that she had told staff she wanted no language bans at the school.
A similar case at a school in Västerås, about an hour outside Stockholm, has been reported to the national ombudsman for discrimination.
A street scene in Gothenburg, Sweden.
The Council of Europe last year reported that Sweden was “experiencing an increase in instances of interethnic intolerance, racism and hate speech” that was affecting national minorities, including language teaching.
It found several cases of Finnish teachers prohibited from using the language in school outside the classroom. “I have heard of many cases where Finnish teachers have been discriminated against,” says Sirpa Humalisto, the head of Sweden’s Finnish teachers’ association.
The position of Sweden’s four other official minority languages – Sami, Roma, Yiddish and Meänkieli (Tornedal Finnish) – may be worse, since they are spoken by fewer people. Municipalities have “almost completely failed” to apply minorities policy across the country, according to an official report in the summer.
The situation in Sweden is almost the opposite of Finland, where Swedish is compulsory for all school students even though only about 5% of the population have Swedish as their mother tongue.
Of an estimated 6,000 children entitled to Finnish mother tongue education in Gothenburg alone, only 177 are receiving it, according to the city council. In January last year, the only Finnish-language school in the city was closed down after a negative evaluation by the Swedish schools inspectorate.
“I do not want to move my daughter to Finland for her to go to Finnish-language pre-school, but that’s exactly what I have to do today if nothing changes fast,” wrote Sonja Jakobsson, under an online petition in the summer calling on Gothenburg council to deliver on bilingual schooling rights.
“Swedish-speaking people have an obvious place in Finnish society and are given clear Swedish-language schooling in Finland – why is it not the same for Finns here?”
The condition of the Finnish language in Sweden, say critics, means that the country lacks qualified mother-tongue teachers, as well as workers in other fields, such as elderly care.
In other areas, Sweden’s Finnish minority enjoys more rights than before, according to Petra Palkio, a board member of the Sweden Finnish Delegation.
“The media are covering us in a different way; we are more proud of being Sweden Finns,” Palkio said. By failing to invest sufficiently in its Finnish minority, “Sweden is robbing itself,” she said.