Election Talk gives candidates running in the municipal elections a chance to discuss their views on the increasingly international aspect of Finnish society, as well as how this will affect their work if they are elected. Voting will take place on 9 April 2017, with advance voting between 29 March and 4 April.
Immigrants in Finland have the right to take free language classes as part of their integration process. Usually in Helsinki, these classes involve learning Finnish, the more widely spoken of the country’s two national languages. It was only a few years ago that immigrants gained the right to choose to learn Finland’s minority language, Swedish. As I learnt when my own husband immigrated here in 2015, however, this option is rarely presented, and few foreigners are aware of it themselves. I want to change this.
Integration in Swedish is available in Helsinki. Arbis, the Swedish-language adult education center, won the tender to officially organize Swedish-language integration for adults in the Helsinki region last year. This means their course is offered free of charge to participants in the same way Finnish courses are elsewhere. This is a positive step towards ensuring both languages are offered on equal terms to immigrants.
For children, integration in Swedish is available in Swedish-speaking local schools with extra support provided by specialized teachers that go between schools. This differs from the model in Finnish schools, where preparatory classes for immigrant children are organized. One of the reasons for the difference is size: there are only some 40 children of different ages that integrate in Swedish, while the number is ten times that on the Finnish side. Civil servants admit that the small number of children integrating in Swedish is partly due to lack of information among immigrant families.
Some might see little point in learning Finland’s minority language. Why learn a language spoken by only 5.7% (2016) of Helsinki residents? Indeed, why learn a language which is already under threat from current government policies which seem to care little for Swedish-speaking Finns’ constitutional right to speak their own language?
Many immigrants that learn Swedish in Helsinki do so because their significant other is a Finnish Swede. Swedish can also be easier to learn, particularly for speakers of other Germanic languages, thus opening up opportunities faster than learning Finnish would do – from entering higher education to taking the language exam that is a prerequisite for applying for Finnish citizenship. It also opens opportunities across the Nordic countries, most obviously in Sweden, but also Norway and Denmark.
My hope is that more foreigners will learn Swedish in Finland. For one, you’d be doing Swedish-speaking Finns a favor by boosting demand for services in Swedish and thereby helping to maintain Helsinki as a genuinely bilingual city. More than anything, however, I genuinely believe that learning Swedish in Helsinki offers immigrants good opportunities to integrate and put their skills and knowledge to use. Key to achieving this will be to ensure information about integration in Swedish, for both adults and children, is routinely provided to immigrants through a single contact point. The city will then have to ensure that supply meets demand.
Nora Lindström is a trilingual Green party candidate in the Helsinki municipal elections. She studied at the University of St Andrews (MA) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the UK, before embarking on a career in human rights. Recently she’s been working on issues surrounding irregular migration at the Helsinki Deaconess Institute. She’s also a new mother and lives with her daughter, American husband, and Cambodian street cat in Munkkiniemi. www.noralindstrom.com, @NoraLindstroem