A very brief history of linguistically diverse Finland

This blog post explores the rich linguistic history of Finland, tracing its language shifts from ancient times to the present day while highlighting the need for better recognition and inclusion of multilingual speakers to ensure their linguistic rights and enable effective planning of services.

Kaisa Pankakoski

6/9/20233 min read

Linguistic diversity and multilingualism are not new phenomena. Finland has gone through many language shifts. The languages spoken in the geographical area have changed several times since it was populated at the end of the Ice Age 11,000-13,000 years ago.

The first arrivals spoke an ancient language of which there is little information. After that, most of the population spoke a Proto-Sámic language. About 2,000 years ago, the language was slowly replaced by Finnish as Proto-Finnic speakers travelled from the Ural mountains via Estonia to Finland. Several loan words from the first ancient language are still in use in Sámi, and some even in Finnish, such as nuotio (fireplace) or kontio (bear).

During the Middle Ages, German was primarily used in international commerce whereas Latin was the language of the church. Swedish has been spoken in Finland alongside Finnish since the 11th century; Finland was a part of the Kingdom of Sweden until the 1809 Cold War when the Russian army invaded the area. The Grand Duchy of Finland then became a relatively autonomous part of the Russian empire. After this time, Russian military forces were stationed in Finland, and the number of Russian speakers increased considerably. Still, the autonomy allowed the Swedish language to remain in both education and administration.

In December 1917, Finland gained its independence from Russia. The status of the Finnish language had been improving throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, and by this time, the Swedish elite had lost its authority in society. The newly independent Finnish government proceeded to set both Finnish and Swedish as the official languages of the country in its 1919 constitution.

Multilingual Finland today

Finland joining the European Union in 1995 did not manifest immediately in the immigration figures or drastically increase the country’s linguistic diversity. Labour migration took hold only in the new millennium as the movement between the EU member states became more widespread. Since the 2010s, a rapidly increasing number of people speaking languages other than the official languages, Finnish or Swedish, have arrived in Finland.

The new citizens come from a wide variety of social classes, countries, and linguistic backgrounds. The countries of origin of the immigrants are diverse. Over 160 languages have been registered as the citizens’ first languages in Finland. The number of unique languages and the number of citizens speaking a non-official language in Finland are rising. About half of the foreign language speakers live in the capital city area, which has led to the Helsinki metropolitan area becoming superdiverse. A quarter of pupils in Helsinki are registered as foreign language speakers, and schools have had to adjust quickly to accommodate the new generation of foreign-born pupils.

Finnish population register

Currently, only one language can be declared as a first language in the Finnish population register väestötietojärjestelmä. The system was initially introduced to identify Swedish and Finnish speakers in municipalities or local authorities to provide bilingual services. Although you can change the mother tongue at any point in the register, the system does not allow those who speak two or more languages as home languages to register them. Many immigrants, bilingual, or multilingual speakers are not visible in these statistics. Therefore, the population register is not a reliable source to give exact numbers of different language groups in Finland; it does not serve the purpose of accurately identifying the country’s demolinguistic structure.

According to Statistics Finland, 8,3% of the population speak a foreign language in Finland but in reality, the number is significantly higher. Being able to register one’s mother tongues would provide a more realistic picture of the population of Finland. It would also allow better planning of multilingual services in health care, social services, and education, as well as guarantee the linguistic rights of every Finnish citizen.

You can sign the citizens’ initiative here (electronic identification required): https://www.kansalaisaloite.fi/fi/aloite/11710

Kaisa Pankakoski

Kaisa Pankakoski’s PhD research looks at language ideologies, strategies, and experiences of multilingual families in Finland and Wales. Her research was recently awarded the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland research grant.

Mun nimeen voisi linkittää vaikka: https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/people/research-students/view/154640-pankakoski-kaisa

Tai Twitterin, väikkäri alkaa olla aika valmis niin yliopiston sivut saattavat kadota: https://twitter.com/kaisapan

Read more

Foreign-language speakers https://www.stat.fi/tup/maahanmuutto/maahanmuuttajat-vaestossa/vieraskieliset_en.html

Mapping the linguistic landscape of the Helsinki Metropolitan Area (MAPHEL) www.mv.helsinki.fi/home/thiippal/maphel

Multi mother-tongued. Citizens' initiative to register more than one mother tongue https://monikielinen.fi/en

Palviainen, Å. and Bergroth, M. 2018. Parental discourses of language ideology and linguistic identity in multilingual Finland. International Journal of Multilingualism 15(3), pp. 262-275

Read more in Finnish

Heikkilä, R. 2011. Bättre folk, bättre smak? Suomenruotsalaisten maku ja kulttuuripääoma. Helsingin yliopisto.

Portin, M. 2017. Vieraskieliset perusopetuksessa ja toisen asteen koulutuksessa 2010-luvulla. Helsinki: Opetushallitus.

Suomen kielet 1917–2017 http://www.ling.helsinki.fi/~fkarlsso/Suomen_kielet_1917_2017.pdf

Usean kielen merkitseminen väestötietojärjestelmään-selvitys https://julkaisut.valtioneuvosto.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/162056/OM_2020_8.pdf?sequence=4&isAllowed=y

Vieraskielisten määrä kasvoi yli 25 000 henkilöllä https://stat.fi/til/vaerak/2021/vaerak_2021_2022-03- 31_tie_001_fi.html