FOR MANY FOREIGN-BORN ARRIVALS who choose to build a life in Finland, one of the biggest obstacles to citizenship is the Finnish language, which has been ranked by the US State Department as one of the most difficult languages on Earth to master.
Those looking for an alternative pathway to citizenship and for integrating into Finnish society more generally can instead choose to learn Swedish, the other official language of Finland that has 288,000 persons registered as their mother tongue, even if far more Finns speak it. For this reason and for many others, some migrants opt to go for the “Swedish path”, mastering the language and immersing themselves in Finland’s vibrant Finnish-Swedish community.
One such person who did exactly that is Julia Qesteri, a native of Albania who first came to Finland to study at Helsinki University in 1994 and who now holds Finnish citizenship. Although Julia’s main motivation for learning Swedish came after meeting her Swedish-speaking husband, she is keen to point out the unexpected benefits of integrating in a minority language.
“I did a few years of Finnish and thought ‘OK, this is enough now”, explained Julia, adding that her previous experience learning English made the transition to Swedish much easier.
Although she still often speaks Finnish and uses it in professional contexts, she accepts that her “life is fully in Swedish now” and that she is able to go about much of her daily life in the language. From her home base in Kauniainen, a city in the capital region with a large proportion of Swedish speakers, Julia enjoys an active social life in her adopted language.
“The Swedish community is just so welcoming, more so than Finnish speakers”, Julia added, explaining that the small nature of the Finnish-Swedish community breeds a “tight-knit” culture that makes integrating easier.
“They just make so much effort to help you learn and be a part of things”.
A full convert to the Swedish path, Julia now works for Luckan Integration, a non-profit organization that aims to help foreign arrivals who might wish to integrate in Finland, with special competence in integration in Swedish. Their flagship service is the Welcome.fi digital platform, which acts as a general portal for all available resources on learning, working, and living in Swedish in Finland.
Another arrival who opted to integrate in Swedish is Andrea Brandão, who originally came from Brazil in 1994 and who now lives her life as a full-time Swedish-speaking Finnish citizen, working as a schoolteacher in Helsinki. Andrea first came to Finland as an exchange student before meeting her husband – also a Swedish speaker – and building her professional life here in Swedish.
“I think I have spent about 20 years mastering Finnish, whereas it took me about three years to reach Swedish fluency”, Andrea explained.
For Andrea, another major draw of the Swedish route is the active social life and a strong sense of community offered by the Finland-Swedish. When she began learning the Swedish language, she quickly found herself inundated with invitations to Swedish-speaking sports clubs, events, and associations.
“They really make an effort to make you feel welcome”, Andrea said, also adding that “it takes a lot more time and effort to make friends with Finnish speakers, as they can be less open to outsiders”.
For newcomers to the Swedish-speaking scene, Andrea recommends using Fritid.fi, an online portal that highlights all of the Swedish-speaking cultural and leisure activities taking place in the capital region, including those aimed at beginner learners.
“I really wish these resources had existed when I was starting out here”.
Of course, integrating in Swedish is not without its challenges. The Swedish-speaking population of Finland has shrunk from 297,000 in 1990 to 288,000 today, leading some to worry about the future of the language. The uptake of Swedish by foreign arrivals could prove key to sustaining the community.
Both Andrea and Julia believe that more people would consider integrating in Swedish if there was greater awareness of this option.
Julia explained that “very few migrants, even those that have been here for a while, know of the possibility of choosing the language and the fact that you have the right to request all of your public services and official documents in Swedish”.
However, they acknowledge that, even for those that do master Swedish and attain citizenship this way, challenges remain.
“The ability to live your life comfortably in Swedish in Finland depends massively on where you live,” said Andrea, explaining that while Helsinki and Western Finland have a higher availability of public services and jobs in Swedish, people living elsewhere may struggle.
“It has been disappointing. Sometimes you will try to access a public service and find that there is no one in the building who can speak Swedish”.
Nonetheless, both remain upbeat about their future as Swedish speakers and strongly encourage other foreigners to go down the same route, emphasizing that there is “strength in numbers”, as well as the advantages of learning Swedish over Finnish.
Julia says that one of the main reasons people approach Luckan to begin their Swedish journey is that they struggle to get a job in Finnish, no matter how long they have been learning the language.
“Swedish can be very advantageous if you want to work for an international company based in Finland”; she explained.
“Also, it doesn’t hurt that Swedish-speakers tend to be more open to foreigners and interested in hiring them”.
For Andrea, the sense of community and the social opportunities are the main draw.
“There is a real comfort in the smallness of our community and a familiarity that is very nice”.
“You can really build a great life here in Swedish, so give it a go”.
Foreign-born individuals wishing to integrate in Swedish can find out more at welcome.fi while hobbies and associations for Swedish learners and speakers can be found at fritid.fi. Social and cultural events in Swedish can be found at Kuturforum.fi
Order In Swedish in Finland, a book about the Swedish language and culture within Finnish society
If you need help with any issue regarding your integration path you can book counseling with one of Luckan Integrations counselors at the Luckan Integration website.
Adam Oliver Smith - HT