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Multilingualism in Finland: Opportunities and Challenges

Our first task in the LangWork project was to assess partners’ countries strengths and weaknesses concerning multilingual communication. This post summarizes the findings from Finland.

A photo of a large public building with wooden cladding at the bottom and glass at the top
Oodi library in Helsinki (in the photo) is a place that wants every visitor to feel welcome, regardless of their background. Photo: Christian Robinson

First, we looked at the linguistic landscape, focusing on the status of minorities' languages and taking note of historical contexts that shaped it. Next, we looked at policies that support migrant integration, especially target language learning and the availability of information in other languages. We also paid attention to the most pressing challenges that linguistic minorities with migrant background face.

Being ‘the happiest country in the world’, Finland shows interest in developing an inclusive society, on many levels. Activists, policy makers and members of linguistic minorities participate in discussions about equal access to work opportunities, services and wellbeing for individuals with migrant or foreign background. At the same time, barriers to this participation persist, and the mismatched language skills are the typical culprit (More in FinMonik Report, in Finnish).

Strengths: a Strategy for Everyone

Our report identified the following strengths concerning the situation in Finland. With both Finnish and Swedish as official languages, Finns are used to the presence of different languages in everyday life. Although neither Finnish nor Swedish is a popular foreign language globally, many Finns have sufficient command of English to interact with those who do not speak them. Many Finnish organizations recognize the need for better linguistic cohesion, and approach this challenge from different angles.

Taking several paths is an advantage, as it helps to address different linguistic needs and skill levels. Indeed, accessibility can mean different things, depending on your situation. So, organizations use translation or even change their working language. Importantly, there are also efforts to support learners of Finnish. This can be done by offering language courses as part of the workday or by adapting content to ‘easy Finnish’. Easy Finnish supports learning and motivation because the information is adapted to its receiver, and not the other way around. Recognizing the diversity of language users is clearly a strength when it comes to building linguistic cohesion. What is more, the availability of parallel language versions stimulates translanguaging, that is using of two or more languages simultaneously.

Challenges: Insecurity

At the same time, the Finnish case highlights several challenges. First, with only a few millions of speakers, Finnish qualifies as a ‘small language’. This has a direct impact on available learning materials: the market is not as diverse and competitive as in the case of global lingua francas. Second, a strong presence of other languages in everyday life results in borrowing of foreign words and grammatical structures. This may give people an impression that their language is at risk, leading to distrust towards multilingualism. Finally, building linguistic cohesion is surely a demanding process, that very often gets stuck in a monolingual mindset. While positive attitudes are important, they must be followed by concrete actions. If no one is willing to put in the work, efforts to promote a cohesive multilingual society will be reduced to tokenism.

The Final Score

In summary, many stakeholders in Finland recognize the importance of communication in building a cohesive society. Finnish organizations follow different strategies towards this goal because understandable language is a powerful tool for social integration, and multilingualism means options. However, positive attitudes alone will not solve the problems. If it is to succeed, linguistic cohesion requires action and courage to innovate.

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