The Swedish-speaking minority in Finland makes up around five percent of the total population, yet a 2014 study by THL found that as much as 15 percent of first-generation immigrants prefer Swedish to Finnish. On average, predominantly Swedish-speaking municipalities also have higher shares of foreign-born residents compared to most of their Finnish counterparts: as many as seventeen of the nationwide top twenty are mostly Swedish-speaking.
Part of these numbers can be attributed to migration from Sweden, but this does not tell the full story. After all, the average Swedish-speaking municipality also has a relatively high share of residents whose first language is neither Finnish nor Swedish. Five of ten municipalities with the largest share of foreign-language speakers in Finland have a majority Swedish-speaking population, too – a significant number considering that only ten percent of all Finnish municipalities are predominantly Swedish speaking.
Though immigration to the Swedish-speaking areas of Finland does not form one single, uniform narrative, one cannot help but wonder what leads people to integrate into a minority culture and whether there are any benefits to doing so.
Helsinki Times spoke to city managers, immigrants, and subject-matter experts to learn more about immigration into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority areas.
The most common surname in Närpes is Nguyen
“In the eighties and nineties it was difficult to get workers from other parts of Finland to move to Närpes because our town was too ‘Swedish’,” Mikaela Björklund, city manager of Närpes, tells Helsinki Times. “But as it turns out, people from Bosnia and Vietnam did not mind that we speak Swedish instead of Finnish here.”
Närpes is located in the Ostrobothnia region of Western Finland. The area is a locus for greenhouse cultivation, with a majority of Finland’s tomatoes and cucumbers grown here. Jobs in both the greenhouses as well as the local metals industry are plentiful, but the supply of local workers has long been unable to meet demand.
The first immigrants to settle in Närpes were twenty refugees from Vietnam who arrived in 1988. A few years later, unrest on the Balkan Peninsula brought Bosnian refugees to the area as well. Today, the local high street is host to both a Balkan and an Asian food shop, and the most common surname in the area is the Vietnamese family name ‘Nguyen’.
“When we were thinking about how we could get more people to move to Närpes for work, these newcomers offered to help us recruit workers directly from Bosnia and Vietnam,” Björklund explains. “It was possible for us to give the people we recruited immediate access to the labour market because many jobs here require little to no Swedish- or Finnish language skills.”
Beyond having plenty of jobs to offer, Björklund also believes that Närpes is a welcoming community in part because the Swedish-speaking population knows what it is like to be a minority, and can therefore empathise with some parts of the immigrants’ experiences.
There is also a long history of migration from Närpes, so cross-border movement features prominently in the shared stories of the local inhabitants. In the early twentieth century, many migrated to the United States in hope of a better life, whereas the aftermath of the Second World War led many to seek refuge not only on the other side of the Atlantic but also elsewhere in the Nordics.
“There is almost no family in Närpes without a relative who has moved abroad and eventually returned with new experiences and habits,” Björklund says.
More than thirty different languages are spoken in Närpes today among only 9,500 residents, but it is the local Swedish dialect that dominates daily interactions regardless of peoples’ backgrounds – especially among the young.
Several employers offer Swedish language classes to their foreign employees, and almost all refugees enroll in Swedish classes as part of their integration courses. There are no Finnish options unless you are prepared to travel to another municipality or complete a course online.
Lack of budget for Swedish language classes
Everyone who arrives in Finland as an asylum seeker or refugee has the right to choose whether they want to be integrated with Swedish or Finnish, but the lack of real options in most areas often makes this promise difficult to realise.
For refugees and asylum seekers in Pargas – a municipality of 15,000 residents spread out across several islands in the Archipelago Sea – all integration classes are organised in the city of Turku, about one hour away by public transport, and none of them teach Swedish.
“There is an integration course in Swedish online, but you need to be incredibly disciplined to complete this at home, especially if you have kids in the house,” says Gudrun Degerth in a conversation with Helsinki Times. She is the only full-time refugee coordinator in Pargas.
Degerth has long been lobbying for Swedish-language integration in Turku, but every year she receives the same answer: there is no budget. Although the ELY centre – responsible for the allocation of funding for integration courses – once did agree to organise a combined course for both Swedish and Finnish language studies in Pargas, this was also ultimately discontinued because of monetary constraints.
There are about seven hundred foreign-born residents in Pargas, but only a handful of immigrants with no prior Finnish or Swedish skills have learned Swedish before learning Finnish. Yet many of those who have been integrated in Finnish first have also picked up conversational Swedish skills simply by being involved in the local community.
This is especially true on the two islands that make up Nagu – Degerth’s hometown. Most hobbies are organised in Swedish on the islands, so it does not take long for immigrant children to become trilingual. They speak their mother tongue at home, Finnish at school, and Swedish in their extracurricular activities.
One hundred asylum seekers in the archipelago
Nagu captured the attention of both national and international media when a temporary reception centre for more than one hundred asylum seekers was set up in this town of 1,400 people in 2015. Though some locals were skeptical at first – having bought into stereotypes of lone men that would bring violence to the town – the integration strategy was ultimately deemed so successful that the “Nagu model” is often referred to as an example for others to emulate.
The secret, Degerth says, is to engage the community. Immigrants need to feel welcome, and locals need to feel like their concerns are being listened to. The only way to achieve this is to ensure the locals have an active role in making integration a success.
Three families decided to stay in Nagu after the reception centre closed. Another three relocated to the neighbouring island of Pargas – still staying in the municipality – and one moved to the somewhat larger town of Karis. This was considered to be a great achievement for such a small community.
Just like in other small towns and municipalities, the people of Nagu work hard to ensure newcomers want to stay on their islands. The fear is that immigrants will stay for one or two years and then relocate to larger towns and cities in search of better job opportunities – or simply more people.
The extra care taken in smaller towns may be just enough to tip the scale in their favour, if even for a few families. While larger towns may be able to offer a greater array of job opportunities, smaller ones allow for closer contacts with prospective employers simply by virtue of population size. For better or worse, the absence of anonymity in a small town goes both ways: neither the newcomer nor the life-long resident goes unnoticed.
From Iraq to Ekenäs
Tavga Zahir was only three years old when her family moved from northern Iraq to Ekenäs, a town of 15,000 people on the Southwestern coast of Finland. Just like many of the children who have grown up on the islands of Nagu, she is also trilingual today, twenty-four years later. The difference is that she learned Swedish before learning Finnish.
Finland was not in the Zahir family’s plans. They had barely heard of the country when they, in the early nineties, had a chance encounter with a Swedish-speaking Finn in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. His name is Karl Auguston, or ‘Kalle’ for short, and he came to play a major role in changing the family’s future life trajectory.
A few years earlier, Zahir’s older sister had been shot at a refugee camp where the family was staying. She was only six years old at the time, and though she survived, she lost her ability to walk.
Augustson was on a relief mission in Kurdistan when he happened to run into Zahir’s sister. Seeing a young child unable to walk because of a gunshot wound made its mark on Augustson. He promised Zahir’s parents that he would do everything he could to bring the girl to Finland for medical care, and though it took two years, he eventually delivered on the promise.
Zahir’s sister and father moved first; the rest of the family joined two years later. Ekenäs was an obvious choice because it was Auguston’s hometown, too. The language was not so much a question in the beginning either, as Ekenäs is a predominantly Swedish-speaking town.
“If we had moved to a predominantly Finnish speaking city it is likely that we would never have learned Swedish,” Zahir tells Helsinki Times. “Today my entire family speaks both Swedish and Finnish well, but had we not learned Swedish first I doubt we would know both languages.”
Zahir’s early memories of Swedish are anything but positive: she fought hard with the words in her school’s textbooks, and cried her way through several Swedish classes. But it all changed in secondary school when a friend of hers began lending her books. Zahir was soon hooked.
Today she has a great appreciation for the language, perhaps best illustrated by her involvement in both SvenskaNu and NordicSom; two non-governmental organisations that work to promote the Swedish language among students in Finnish schools. While SvenskaNu promotes the language among all Finnish students, NordicSom focuses specifically on students with immigrant backgrounds.
“Swedish opens so many doors,” Zahir says. “It gives you opportunities in all Nordic countries, and it is a first step towards learning both English and German as the languages are all quite similar. And for foreigners, I think it is much easier to learn Swedish than Finnish.”
Despite Zahir’s best efforts to make a case for Swedish-language education, many of Zahir’s friends have decided to enrol their children in Finnish schools, citing potential difficulties to survive in Finnish society with only Swedish language skills.
“What I always tell them is that it’s not an either-or question; if children attend a Swedish school they will learn Finnish by watching TV, in their Finnish classes, and by just existing in Finnish society,” Zahir explains. “But I think there are many who do not really see the value of being bilingual.”
Something Zahir feels she may have been missing in her Swedish school and town was friends with similar backgrounds to hers. While she did not think about it much then, she had no Kurdish or Muslim friends growing up. It was only in her twenties when she was studying to become a midwife in Helsinki that she got to know a group of Muslim girls.
“It almost felt like I found a part of me that I did not even know had been lost. Had I attended a Finnish school in Helsinki, I would probably have hung out with these Muslim girls growing up,” she hypothesises.
But Zahir also emphasises how welcoming the Swedish-speaking Finns have been. Though she cannot know for sure, she doubts that her family would have been as warmly welcomed in other parts of Finland. To some degree, she echoes Björklund’s theory that the Swedish-speaking minority may be more welcoming because they can identify with feeling like the ‘other’ in society – or at least the struggle to learn Finnish.
Swedish for the passport, Finnish for a job
People say that you should learn Swedish to get a passport, and Finnish to get a job, Apurva Ganoo tells Helsinki Times. He is a Master’s student in International Design Business Management as well as a teaching assistant at Aalto University.
Ganoo was born in India and moved to Vaasa as a seven-year-old because of his father’s job. At the time, Vaasa had no English school, but the Swedish school did have an English-language International Baccalaureate programme for high school students and therefore a handful of English teachers in the building. This made the choice between Swedish and Finnish education easy for Ganoo’s parents.
“The first six months were tough, but we were surrounded by Swedish everywhere so eventually we did learn it,” Ganoo says, referring to him and his older sister.
Six years after arriving in Finland, Ganoo’s family packed their bags yet again to move to Malaysia. But for Ganoo, Vaasa still felt like home, so after graduating from high school he decided to return and enrol in an undergraduate course in the city.
“Many of my international friends don’t understand why I speak Swedish but not Finnish after having lived in Finland for ten years,” Ganoo says. “But when I lived in Vaasa all my friends spoke Swedish, so it never felt necessary to know Finnish. I could get by without.”
Today Ganoo lives in the capital region and spends much of his time with English-speaking friends who have also moved to Finland from abroad. He has still not perceived it as necessary to learn Finnish, as he can both study and work at Aalto without knowing the language fluently.
“I have seen many strategically choose to learn Finnish to have better chances of getting a job. If people learn Swedish first, it is generally to get the passport quickly, as Swedish is considered easier to learn,” he says. “But in Helsinki, you can survive with English.”
Following the easier path
The US State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, or FSI, estimates that Finnish is among the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers, whereas Swedish is one of the easiest.
But although Swedish is easier to learn for many – particularly those who speak other Germanic languages – there are a few notable exceptions. The most obvious ones are those who speak Estonian and Hungarian; these are both Uralic languages, and thus closely related to Finnish, so prior knowledge of either one would provide a useful foundation for subsequent Finnish language studies.
Other languages differ greatly from both Swedish and Finnish. Among Arabic speakers in Pargas, Degerth has not noticed a big difference in the amount of time it takes foreigners to learn Swedish and Finnish. She argues that there are two factors to learning that are much more important than the language itself: the quality of teaching, and the motivation of the student.
Difficulties in the job market
Of course, not all immigrants who have learned Swedish first are glad they did. Linda Bäckman has met some who have voiced frustrations. She is a researcher at the Swedish department of Åbo Akademi and is currently completing a study on language and identity among immigrants in the Swedish-speaking communities of Finland.
“Some who have learned Swedish first and then moved to Helsinki have struggled to find a job,” Bäckman says. “Especially those who have prior qualifications from their country of origin have had a difficult time finding work that corresponds to their level of experience.”
But other immigrants who Bäckman has spoken to also echo Zahir in saying that Swedish opens up doors to the rest of the Nordics. Though no one that Helsinki Times spoke to for this article has seen any significant number of immigrants move to Sweden after learning Swedish in Finland, there may of course be some who view the Swedish-speaking communities as stepping stones towards larger cities elsewhere in the Nordics.
Swedish as a viable alternative
Immigration to the Swedish speaking communities of Finland does not form a single, uniform narrative, but one thing is clear: there are enough positives to learning Swedish that it should continue to be considered as a viable alternative for those who come to Finland from abroad.
Though life in a small community may not be everyone’s cup of tea in the long-term, it does not rule out immigration and integration into the Swedish-speaking minority of Finland as a whole. Recently, the Arcada University of Applied Sciences became the first Swedish-language higher education institution to provide integration classes for immigrants on its Helsinki and Espoo campuses – a significant step towards more Swedish language integration in the capital region.
The jury is still out on whether the Swedish-speaking minority is more open to immigration than other parts of the population, but perhaps that is not such an important question after all. Individuals will regardless come to varying conclusions of what is best for them when presented with the alternatives, and they always will. The beauty of having alternatives is precisely that it gives you a choice. And for some, Swedish may just be the right one.