Mandatory Swedish

In Finland, Swedish is a mandatory school subject for Finnish-speaking pupils in the last four years of the primary education (grades 6 to 9). This so-called other domestic language is also mandatory in high schools, vocational schools, and vocational universities. Furthermore, all university graduates must demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in Swedish (the so-called public servant's Swedish). Altogether 89% of Finnish citizens are native Finnish speakers, whereas 5.3% of the population report Swedish as their mother tongue.[1] Currently, it is possible for Finnish citizens to report a different mother tongue for themselves at any time, and as many times as desired, by submitting a form to the Population Register Center.

According to the Finnish constitution, both Finnish and Swedish are national languages. The employees of the national government and the bilingual municipal governments are required to be able to serve citizens in Swedish. Military service is not required in the autonomous region of Åland. The official term for both mandatory Swedish and Finnish is the other 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".


The status of Swedish as a national language in Finland is defined by the Finnish constitution. There was migration of Swedish-speaking peasants to some Finnish coastal areas during the Middle Ages. During this period, when Finland was ruled by Sweden, Swedish language became part of the culture in the coastal areas. Swedish was also the language of the ruling class. The Finnish language was forbidden an official status alongside Swedish until the period of Russian rule (1809–1917), in 1860. The autonomous Åland Islands (pop. 26,000, 95% Swedish, 5% Finnish) has only one official language, Swedish, and the speaking of Finnish between employees is forbidden in some public services.

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 made voluntary in 2004, 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 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 between 1972 and 2015.

Supporters of Mandatory Swedish argue that it brings Finland closer to the Nordic countries, since Swedish is part of the larger Scandinavian dialect continuum and, at least for proficient speakers, mutually intelligible with both Danish and Norwegian, while Finnish belongs to the unrelated Finnic language group. The Scandinavian languages have over 25 million speakers in the Nordic region and is the largest language by far; they are also the working languages of the Nordic political bodies (the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers), and are spoken in all the Nordic countries as majority, official or second languages; thus Finnish citizens' knowledge of Swedish is regarded as essential for Finland's ability to be included in Nordic cooperation, and even to be seen as Nordic, by the proponents of mandatory Swedish. Supporters of mandatory Swedish also argue that knowledge of Swedish gives Finnish citizens access to the culture and labour market of Scandinavia, a region four times the size of Finland. Supporters also say 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 tsar 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 Tsar 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, grundskola) 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 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. 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.[2] 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.[3]


The share of respondents in favour of voluntary Swedish according to a series of surveys by Taloustutkimus[4]
Year In favour

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".[6]

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.[7] 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".

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

A study conducted by Taloustutkimus for Yle in 2013 indicated that 63 percent of respondents were opposed to mandatory Swedish. Further, the study indicated that among the supporters of the different political parties, only the supporters of the Swedish People's Party and the Green League favoured retaining mandatory Swedish teaching. A majority of supporters in all the other parties wanted Swedish teaching to be voluntary – the supporters of the Finns Party and the Social Democrats were most heavily in favour of making Swedish voluntary (76 and 73 percent respectively).[5]

A study conducted by Åbo Akademi in 2014 indicated that 74 percent of Finnish speaking respondents agreed with the statement "The teaching of the Swedish language should be voluntary".[11]


In many cases, pupils have negative expectations and experiences of learning Swedish which may foster a negative attitude towards the Swedish language and culture. This behavior 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. 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.

According to a study published in 2002 students are interested in the Swedish language, and find it an important part of education, but they perceived Swedish being compulsory lessened their motivation[12] (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. The percentage of students taking the Swedish test has since been constantly dropping and was 67% in 2009 (less than 50% of boys).[13]

There has also been a lot of criticism of the methodology used to teach Swedish and the lack of competence in many of the teachers. This has contributed to students' lack of motivation to study Swedish, and many 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. 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 most political parties in Finland, like the National Coalition Party, the Centre Party, the Social Democrats and the Left Alliance. The Finns Party opposes mandatory Swedish,[14] and so does the youth wing of the National Coalition Party.[15]

In 2013 the Confederation of Finnish Industries came out in favour of making Swedish teaching voluntary. They referred to a study which indicated that in the future Swedish will be only the tenth most important language to Finnish companies, when they are considering the language skills of their potential employees.[16] According to Hufvudstadsbladet, the Confederation has subsequently changed their stance and no longer favours making Swedish voluntary, while maintaining the need for learning other languages.[17]

In the Parliament of Finland

In the 2000s the government dropped the requirement to take Swedish (or Finnish in the case of the Swedish-speaking minority) as part of the high school matriculation examination.

In 2014 a citizens' initiative demanding an end to mandatory Swedish teaching on all levels of education was brought to the Finnish Parliament. In 2015 the MPs voted, 134 to 48, to keep mandatory Swedish. In another vote the MPs voted, 93 to 89, to demand that the government should examine, whether a regional experimentation, where another language would be taught instead of Swedish, is possible.[18]

See also


  1. Swedophone population
  2. Hult, F.M., & Pietikäinen, S. (2014). Shaping discourses of multilingualism through a language ideological debate: The case of Swedish in Finland. Journal of Language and Politics, 13, 1-20.
  3. Marjukka, Liiten (June 1, 2010). "EK: Pakkoruotsista luovuttava valintamahdollisuuksien lisäämiseksi". Helsingin Sanomat. Archived from the original on October 13, 2016. (in Finnish)
  4. "Pakkoruotsi". Suomalaisuuden liitto ry. Archived from the original on February 11, 2008. Retrieved January 18, 2009. (in Finnish)
  5. Yli 60 prosenttia suomalaisista haluaa ruotsin kielen vapaavalintaiseksi kouluaineeksi, Yle 24 August 2013, accessed 22 December 2014
  6. "Mandatory Swedish". Archived from the original on February 7, 2004. (in Finnish)
  7. "Suomen Gallupin tutkimus 2003". Archived from the original on April 30, 2009.(in Finnish)
  8. Valittujen Palojen tutkimus 2000 Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine (in Finnish)
  9. IEA/Civic Education Study: Nuorten käsityksiä Ruotsista ja ruotsalaisuudesta Archived 2006-01-05 at the Wayback Machine (in Finnish) (in Swedish)
  10. Vårt land, vårt språk – kahden kielen Kansa. rapport 35. (in Finnish) (in Swedish)
  11. Tutkimus kartoitti suomalaisten mielipiteitä ruotsin kielestä, Åbo Akademi 22 December 2014, accessed 22 December 2014.
  12. 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)
  13. YLE: Svenskan stadigt nedåt i studentskrivningarna
  14. Finns Party electoral programme, 2011, s. 26-27 Archived 2013-09-28 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 22 December 2014
  15. Kokoomusnuoret kannattaa vapaaehtoista kieltenopiskelua 4 March 2013, accessed 22 December 2014
  16. Elinkeinoelämä ajaa pakkoruotsin poistoa – tulevaisuudessa tarvitaan portugalia, MTV Uutiset 13 August 2013, accessed 23 December 2014.
  17. Välkommen kursändring om svenskan av EK, Hufvudstadsbladet November 14, 2014, accessed 29 March 2015.
  18. Ruotsi säilyy pakollisena – Itä-Suomeen mahdollisuus kielikokeiluun?, YLE 6 March 2015, accessed 6 March 2015.
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