A tongue-lashing for compulsory Swedish

21st October 2011 at 01:00
A campaign to end obligatory lessons in the language has sparked a war of words in Finland

When True Finns became the largest opposition force in Finnish politics earlier this year, it sparked fears of a rise in nationalism. The anti-immigration party took around a fifth of the vote, and became the main opposition party following the result in April.

Now, with its feet firmly under the parliamentary table, the party is campaigning to end compulsory Swedish in schools - a subject it considers against Finnish culture - and teachers are backing the fight.

Swedish rule, which lasted until 1809, left Finland with an exclusively Swedish-speaking aristocracy. Only the peasantry spoke Finnish and until 1892 the sole official language was Swedish.

But despite Swedish speakers now making up just 5.4 per cent of the country's population, Swedish remains the second official language. Until 2008, you could not graduate from high school without passing an exam in Swedish and the subject is compulsory from age 12 to 15 and must be offered from age nine.

Finland's language politics used to be avoided by mainstream politicians. But 63 per cent of people now favour abolishing mandatory Swedish, according to a poll.

"In the past, Finland's main contacts were with Sweden, but now the world is global," argues Risto Rommberg, headteacher of Kortepohjan Primary School in Jyvaskyla (central Finland).

"We need to learn European languages and even languages from the east.

"It's not fair that Swedish takes up so much time, but there is never the need to speak it because Swedes only live on the west coast and almost all of them know Finnish. You have to pass a Swedish exam to graduate from university. The exam is nonsense and we must get rid of it as well."

Many other headteachers have demanded an end to obligatory Swedish. They have met with influential support, with the Federation of Finnish Industries also on board.

Even the Finland-Swedish Society, which wants to reverse the decline of Swedish as a mother tongue, favours the change.

"Compulsory Swedish is a burden to Finnish speakers," insists its chairman, Helsinki University's Professor Juha Janhunen.

"It is of no practical use to most Finns and it adds to negative feelings against (Finland's) Swedes."

The issue is so incendiary that it has even led to disagreements in the government. The small Swedish People's Party, part of the coalition, firmly opposes its abolition. However, many Greens, also part of the multi-party coalition, favour change.

Not everyone in the education camp agrees, however. Sampo Backman, parliamentary candidate for the Swedish People's Party and head of the Swedish Private School in Oulu, insists everyone should learn Swedish.

"Finland used to be part of Sweden. and it is very dangerous to forget your history," he said.

Either way, the issue is unlikely to go away. True Finns' popularity shows no sign of waning, with the party consistently topping opinion polls. With its vociferous opposition to Swedish in schools, the government may not be able to ignore it for long.

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