Multilingualism in Europe and its officially multilingual Member States – the case of Finland

, par Johan Häggman

Unlike a melting pot like the United States of America, Europe could better be described as a mosaic of languages. Even though compared to other continents Europe’s linguistic diversity is relatively modest. Roughly 250 indigenous languages are spoken in Europe and almost as many languages are spoken by Europe’s many immigrant communities.
The protection and promotion of Europe’s autochthonous linguistic minorities are also enshrined in the treaties of the European Union. Article 1a of the Lisbon Treaty states that the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. With the Lisbon Treaty the Charter of Fundamental rights entered into force on the 1st of December 2009. The Charter prohibits discrimination based on language in its article 21 and stresses that the Union shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.
Despite this, the linguistic diversity has too often been neglected by the European Union. The Union tend to focus on the linguistic diversity between Member States and not within the single Member States. More than 60 autochthonous lack recognition in the EU, which tends to focus on the 24 official languages ; For a language to become official it has to be mentioned in the constitution of a Member State, proposed by that Member State and adopted by unanimity by the Council. Language policy is an exclusive competence of the Member States.
There are however four countries where the national languages are official languages of the state. Belgium and Luxembourg have three official languages each. Ireland and Finland have two each. Outside the Union, Switzerland has four official languages.
In Belgium Dutch, French and German are official languages. The language use is regulated in an extensive legislation, even though the Belgian Constitution does not explicitly mention which languages enjoy official status, article 4 divides the country into linguistic areas, which form the basis of the federal structure : "Belgium has four linguistic areas : The French-speaking area, the Dutch-speaking area, the bilingual area of Brussels Capital, and the German-speaking area.” Roughly 59% of the inhabitants belong to the Flemish Community, 40% to the French Community, and 1% to the German-speaking Community.
Luxembourg has three official languages ; French, German and Luxembourgish. Every citizen or resident has the right to use of any of these languages with the administration. Since most Luxembourgers are trilingual, the language census does not focus on mother tongue like in Belgium but on the citizens’ knowledge of the different languages. According to a survey in 2009, French is spoken by 99% of the population, Luxembourgish by 82% and German by 81%.
Each of the three official languages is used as the main language in certain domains, without being exclusive. Luxembourgish is the national language and the language most Luxembourgers use when speaking to each other. Apart from novels, it is rarely used as a written language. Most official business and written communication is done in French, which is also the language mainly used for public communication, with written official statements, advertising displays and road signs generally being in French. Professional life is multilingual, but French is described as the main working language by 56% of business leaders, followed by Luxembourgish (20%), English (18%), and German (6%). German is used in media along with French.
In the Republic of Ireland both Irish and English have official status according to the constitution, with Irish being the national and first official language. Northern Ireland has no official language and no language act. English dominates in Northern Ireland, where Irish and Ulster-Scots are recognised regional languages. According to a survey in 2016 census, close to 74,000 said they speak Irish daily. 39.8 % said they spoke Irish to some extent.

Finland is a bilingual country according to its constitution. This means that Swedish native speakers have the right to use their mother tongue with the state authorities. Both languages are legally on an equal footing and have exactly the same status according to the constitution.
All Finnish communities and towns are classified as either monolingual or bilingual. When the proportion of the minority language increases to 8% (or 3000), then the municipality is defined as bilingual, and when it falls below 6%, the municipality becomes monolingual. In bilingual municipalities, all civil servants must have satisfactory language skill in Finnish or Swedish (in addition to native-level skill in their mother tongue). Both languages can be used in all communications with the civil servants in a bilingual town. Public signs are in both languages in bilingual towns and municipalities with the name in the majority language written first.
The Swedish-speaking areas on the Finnish mainland do not have any territorial autonomy, unlike the German-speakers in South Tyrol, Italy or the Catalans, Basques or Galicians in Spain. The lack of a defined territory could be a contributing reason to the decrease in the share of the Swedish-speaking population, from 14.6% in 1815 to 5.2% today. A report carried out by the Finnish government in 2008 showed severe shortcomings in the practical implementation of the language act. The recent administrative reforms in Finland have been strongly criticised in the Swedish-speaking media and raised some concern regarding the survival of Swedish as an administrative language in Finland.
Globalisation has made Finland more multicultural and multilingual. A current topic among the Swedish-speaking minority is therefore how to integrate immigrants in Swedish or at least teach them Swedish. There is a small community of Swedish-speaking immigrants in Finland. Many of them come from Sweden, while others have opted for Swedish because it is the main language in the city in which they live, or because their partners are Swedish-speaking.
About one quarter of immigrants in the Helsinki area would choose to integrate in Swedish if they could choose the language of integration, according to a report by Finland’s Swedish think tank, Magma, there is a widespread perception among immigrants that they are more easily integrated in the Swedish-speaking community than in society at large.
Despite decreasing numbers, due to emigration to Sweden, the future of the Swedish language in Finland is not threatened. Recent surveys shows that a majority of the Finnish-speaking population is in favour of Finland being a bilingual country and consider the Swedish language an added value. One reason for this is Finland’s strong connection to the other Nordic countries, especially to Sweden. Sweden is also Finland’s second biggest trade partner and its biggest export market. So also for economic reasons it is worthwhile promoting the Swedish Finland so that Finland remains a bilingual country.