Mandatory Swedish

Mandatory Swedish

In Finland, Swedish is a mandatory school subject for Finnish-speaking pupils in the last three years of the primary education (grades 7 to 9). It is also mandatory in high schools, vocational schools, and vocational universities. Furthermore, all Finnish-speaking university graduates must demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in Swedish (the so-called public servant's Swedish). Similarly, Finnish is a mandatory subject for the Swedish-speaking population. Altogether 92% of Finnish citizens are native Finnish speakers, whereas 5.5% of the population report Swedish as their mother tongue.[1]

According to the Finnish constitution, both Finnish and Swedish are national official languages. The national government as well as municipal governments in bilingual municipalities are required to serve citizens in their mother tongue, either Finnish or Swedish. The official term for both mandatory Swedish and Finnish is the second domestic language. However, the requirement to study Swedish is often referred to as pakkoruotsi, a somewhat charged term in Finnish meaning "mandatory Swedish", or "enforced Swedish". Pakkosuomi (mandatory Finnish) is sometimes used as a reaction to the word pakkoruotsi.



In Mainland Finland both official languages, Finnish and Swedish, are mandatory subjects for pupils in primary and secondary schools. The Swedish test of the Matriculation Examination was recently (2004) made voluntary, although all university graduates must demonstrate that their skills in the other official language meet the standard required of all academically educated public servants. Usually this means the completion of a so-called public servant's Swedish test. The status of Swedish as an official national language in Finland is defined by the Finnish constitution. The Swedish language is also one of the main agendas of the Swedish People's Party that has been a minor partner in most Cabinets since Finland's independence, and in all Cabinets since 1979.

The autonomous Åland Islands (pop. 26,000, 95% Swedish, 5% Finnish) has only one official language, Swedish, and international treaties to some degree grant it the right of remaining exclusively Swedophone.

The Swedish language is an official language in Finland as a result of the history of the country of Sweden, which gradually annexed what now is Finland from around A.D. 1200. There was also a migration of Swedish peasants to Finland during the Middle Ages. During this period, when Finland was a part of Sweden, Swedish language became part of the culture of Finland. During Swedish rule the Finnish language was passively oppressed by the Swedish-speaking ruling class. The Finnish language was not given an official status until 1860, well into the period of Russian rule (1809–1917).

Supporters of Mandatory Swedish argue that it brings Finland closer to the Nordic countries, since Swedish is quite similar to, and to some extent mutually intelligible with, both Danish and Norwegian, while Finnish belongs to the unrelated Finnic language group. Supporters also claim that studying Swedish makes it easier to learn other Germanic languages, such as English and German. Lastly, they argue, mandatory Swedish is necessary to ensure that Swedish-speakers can interact with governmental institutions and get service, such as health care, in their own mother tongue.


The area that today is Finland was an integral part of Sweden proper from the Middle Ages to the end of the Finnish War in 1809. Swedish migrants settled in coastal areas, and the language of administration was Swedish. This prompted many Finnish-speakers to learn Swedish in hopes of improving their social status, and some switched to Swedish altogether.

As a result of the Finnish War, Sweden ceded Finland to Russia, and the Russian tsar established the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. Although a Governor-General was installed by the Russians as the highest authority within the Grand Duchy, much of the political system remained the same: Finland was allowed to keep its ”laws, religion and language” from the Swedish time. The czar wanted to avoid trouble in the new territory and also used former Swedish upper class to further modernisation in Russia; Finnish was not an option at that time as official language, as the administration did not know Finnish well enough and the language was undeveloped regarding such use.

When Finland became autonomous there was a big interest in creating a new national identity. There was an immense interest in the Finnish language and Finnish culture in the mostly Swedish speaking upper class. At some point the Fennoman movement arose, that thought that the country should be a united nation, with only one language, and, as a reaction, the Svecoman movement, that was afraid that abandoning Swedish would lead to slavicisation or worse.

However, during the 1860s, under Czar Alexander II, it was decided that legal equality between Finnish and Swedish as languages of administration was to be gradually introduced. Thus since the late 19th century Finnish has been a co-official language of administration in Finland. Modernizations typical for the era in Europe were introduced, boosting the status of the Finnish-speaking majority: the special rights of the higher estates of the realm were abolished, a modern parliament based on universal suffrage was introduced 1907 and in 1917 Finland became independent.

In the current form, mandatory Swedish was implemented as a part of the modernisation of the educational system in the 1970s. Previously, a Swedish test had been compulsory on university level and in oppikoulu, a secondary school that was a prerequisite to matriculation to a university, but not in the common kansakoulu. The introduction of the peruskoulu (student ages 7–15), compulsory for all children, introduced a course in Swedish compulsory to all pupils, while Swedish courses and standardized tests at higher levels remained compulsory. This was motivated by the possibility that any student could become a public official and would thus be required to know Swedish.

Current situation

A compulsory introductory course to Swedish for all pupils in primary education was introduced in the 1960s as a part of modernization of the primary education system, where the nine-year school (peruskoulu) was made universally compulsory. Until then there had been mandatory courses only in secondary and tertiary education. Administrative services have, since the end of the 19th century, been offered in both domestic languages; therefore, theoretically employees should be proficient in both Finnish and Swedish. The reform was to some extent based on a political ambition to strengthen the ties with the Western world through Scandinavia, and to show that Finland was still a part of the Nordic countries, and not an Eastern Bloc country. It also sought to improve social mobility by ensuring that a decision on language in the early school years would not become an obstacle for applicants to the civil service.

In the upper secondary general school all the students learn at least two languages besides their mother tongue, one of which is the other domestic language, except for people studying some other language as mother tongue (e.g. immigrants and those studying Sami). Finnish speakers take Swedish, and vice versa. According to Statistics Finland, practically all the students take English, either as a compulsory or an optional language. There is also a possibility to take one or more extra foreign languages: 44 percent take German and 21 percent French. Despite Finland being a neighbour of Russia, Russian is not taught in most schools of Finland, and only 1.5% of Finns know some Russian. The hindrances are cultural and political, as there has been relatively little cultural exchange between the Finns and Russians in the 20th century, and Finland's relations with the Soviet Union were hostile from the Finnish Civil War (1918) until World War II (1939–1944).

The arrangement of "mandatory Swedish and practically-mandatory English" has been criticized, because it reduces the diversity of the language skills of the population. The EU target is to teach two foreign languages. As English is an overwhelmingly popular choice, it has been suggested by, for example, the Confederation of Finnish Industries that keeping Swedish compulsory directly prevents choosing other languages, such as Russian.[2]


The share in favour of voluntary Swedish according to a series of surveys by Taloustutkimus[3]
Year In favour
1990 66%
1991 66%
1997 72%
1999 71%
2001 67%
2003 67%
2007 63%

A number of studies into opinions regarding mandatory Swedish have been made with various results. The big differences between studies exemplifies the problems in conducting a neutral and broad study without asking leading questions on the particular subject. Furthermore, some of the studies have been commissioned by organizations that have politically partisan views on the subject of mandatory Swedish.

Between 1990 and 2003 Taloustutkimus Oy conducted a series of more than ten surveys for Suomalaisuuden liitto, an organisation opposing mandatory Swedish. According to these surveys, 66–72% of Finns were "in favour of voluntary Swedish education or against mandatory Swedish education".

Suomen Gallup's 2003 survey concluded that while a small majority supported "compulsory second domestic language studying", it was opposed by 42% of Finns while 25% did not want both Finnish and Swedish to be official languages of Finland. This study was commissioned by YLE, the Finnish publicly funded national broadcasting company.[4] The question posed to those surveyed was very verbose in comparison to the Taloustutkimus surveys on the same subject. The question did not include the word "Swedish".[citation needed]

In 1992 a study by Valitut Palat (the Finnish edition of Reader's Digest) concluded that 90 percent of the parents of third to fourth grade pupils "supported a reduction of compulsory languages" (only Finnish and Swedish are compulsory). When Valitut Palat did a new survey in 2003 it found 64% opposing mandatory Swedish, and 25% not wanting to have two official languages.[5]

An IEA study (2000) revealed that 67% of young people studying in Finnish-speaking schools wanted to make Swedish a voluntary subject. The most politically aware youths were the most critical against Swedishness in this study.[6]

A study conducted in 1997 by Folktinget, an official consultative organisation representing Finland's Swedish-speakers, concluded that 70% of the Finnish-speaking population considered "Swedish a vital and important part of Finnish society." This study also indicated that the most negative opinions about mandatory Swedish were found among those with academic degrees.[7]


"Away with mandatory Swedish".
A campaign logo against mandatory Swedish.
The character on the logo throws away an Å, a letter found in Swedish words, but not in native Finnish.

In many cases, pupils have negative expectations and experiences towards learning Swedish which may foster a negative attitude towards the Swedish language and culture. This behaviour is claimed to hark back to the time when Finland was a part of Sweden (see Sweden–Finland), and Swedish was the language of prestige while Finnish was looked down on by the government. (Interestingly, however, very similar negative attitudes and motivational problems have arisen in Ireland against mandatory Irish, even though it is supposed to be the national language, so the lack of motivation in learning a language spoken by a small minority may not necessarily be due to nationalistic feelings among the Finnish-speaking majority.) Negative opinions towards studying Swedish are also grounded in the fact that mandatory Swedish is taught throughout the country, even though there are few Swedish-speakers in mainland Finland outside the coastal area by the Baltic Sea, and thus contact with Swedish-speakers is rare for most Finns. This fact can for some make the policy of bilingualism seem artificial, but the basic curriculum remains the same for the entire country. On the other hand there is quite a lot of migration to the regions where Swedish is spoken, such as the Helsinki region.

According to a study published in 2002 students are interested in the Swedish language, and find it as an important part of education, but they perceived Swedish being compulsory lessened their motivation[8] (this argument has been made very frequently in the public debate). The experiment of making the Swedish test voluntary in the matriculation examination (the completion of which is a de facto requirement for university enrollment) was declared successful and was made permanent: 88% of students take the Swedish test voluntarily.[citation needed] This, however, can be argued not to reflect students' motivation, as after studying Swedish compulsorily for many years, they naturally prefer to complete the Swedish test of the examination. The percentage has since been constantly dropping and was 67 % in 2009 (less than 50 % of boys).[9]

There has also been a lot of criticism of the methodology used to teach Swedish and the lack of competence among many of the teachers. This has contributed to student's lack of motivation to study Swedish, and may not learn to speak the language beyond a very basic level. Some students argue that they will never need Swedish as its utility in the Finnish job market is limited to a few fields. Moreover, the rationale of mandatory tuition in Swedish and other subjects is to give the students more of a general knowledge base, and not train them for a specific field.

In addition to the direct costs of the tuition, some argue that mandatory Swedish effectively replaces elective courses in languages such as French, German and Russian, that these persons argue are more important than Swedish in a globalized world. University students are required not only to master their selected field, but also to study at least two languages beside their mother tongue, one of which is obligatorily Swedish for Finnish-speakers. As study material is often in English, this effectively removes the free choice; the two "voluntarily chosen" languages must be Swedish and English. Despite being a neighbour of Russia, it is in practice possible to study Russian only in some schools (due to low interest or it not being offered); only 1.5% of the Finns have a good knowledge of Russian. Also very few Finns speak Estonian (which is not taught in most schools), a language of the same Finnic language group as Finnish, and national language of Finland's southern neighbour Estonia, although Finnish is popular in Estonia.

Sentiments toward mandatory Swedish vary. Many prominent politicians (both Finnish- and Swedish-speaking) wholeheartedly support mandatory Swedish in schools, while others oppose it. There have been numerous petitions and other similar campaigns arranged by some small but dedicated organizations to pressure the lawmakers to abolish mandatory Swedish, but to date, they have had no significant impact on the established policy, and thus have not attained a great deal of momentum. Thus, while the ongoing debate is often heated and passionate, the support for mandatory Swedish tuition remains strong enough among politicians for the government not to consider a change of policy.

Mandatory Swedish is supported by the main political parties in Finland, the National Coalition Party, the Centre Party, the Social Democrats and the Left Alliance. However, the government recently dropped the requirement to take Swedish (or Finnish in the case of the Swedish-speaking minority) as part of the high school matriculation examination.

See also


  1. ^ Swedophone population
  2. ^ Marjukka, Liiten (June 1, 2010). "EK: Pakkoruotsista luovuttava valintamahdollisuuksien lisäämiseksi". Helsingin Sanomat. 
  3. ^ "Pakkoruotsi". Suomalaisuuden liitto ry. Retrieved January 18, 2009. [dead link] (Finnish)
  4. ^ Suomen Gallupin tutkimus 2003: Niukka enemmistö säilyttäisi pakkoruotsin kouluissa (Finnish)
  5. ^ Valittujen Palojen tutkimus 2000 (Finnish)
  6. ^ IEA/Civic Education Study: Nuorten käsityksiä Ruotsista ja ruotsalaisuudesta (Finnish) (Swedish)
  7. ^ Vårt land, vårt språk – kahden kielen Kansa. rapport 35. (Finnish) (Swedish)
  8. ^ Lammi, Kati. Kielisalkku motivoi ruotsin kielen opiskeluun. (Language portfolio as a tool in promoting motivation in the study of Swedish at senior high school: student and teacher views and experiences.) Dissertation at University of Jyväskylä, 2002. Announcement in Finnish and abstract in English)
  9. ^ YLE: Svenskan stadigt nedåt i studentskrivningarna

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