July 2001

Growing up in two languages

Finland's bilingual culture is a relatively well-known fact even outside the country. About five per cent of the population has Swedish as their mother tongue. Now, a new linguistic group has emerged in addition to Finnish and Swedish-speakers. This group consists of people who feel at home with both languages.

According to a doctoral dissertation by Catharina Lojander-Visapää, this group has forsaken the two old identities, Finland's Swedish or Finnish. In an interview in the University of Helsinki magazine, Yliopisto (6 June 2001), Lojander-Visapää explains that this new linguistic group consists of persons whose one parent has Finnish and the other Swedish as the native tongue. The children of these families use either language, depending which parent they are speaking to or what kind of social situation they are in. Neither language holds a priority in their minds.

Among the young people interviewed for the research, three kinds of bilinguality emerged. The first had a Finnish-Swedish identity. They speak only Swedish at home and at school but in most other situations Finnish. Secondly, privately bilingual are people who speak both languages at home but otherwise only Finnish. Most of these persons see themselves as Finnish, alhough some of them think of themselves as bilingual. The third form of bilinguality emerges when a person speaks both Finnish and Swedish at home and elsewhere.

Most bilingual families in Helsinki (80%) send their children to Swedish-language schools. According to Lojander-Visapää, this has nothing to do with old stereotypes of Swedish being a more upper class choice. Rather, it seems that parents want to support their child's knowledge of Swedish and consequently the bilingual culture, as Finnish is the dominant language in their environment anyway. Swedish-language schools also teach Finnish on a level which is comparable to Finnish-language school standards.

Lojander-Visapää also points out that in a more international world knowledge of languages is an important asset. The labour market value of a good knowledge of Swedish has increased as more and more company mergers take place between Sweden and Finland. Also many Swedish companies have set up businesses in Finland. Lojander-Visapää speculates with other reasons, like the status of the family institution.

"The rise of bilinguality may be connected with the crumbling of the family institution. In an era of postmodernist individualism, everything can in principle be dismantled. This is why families don't any more choose a common language which was most common in the old days. Parents hold on to the right to speak their own language with their children. This is how they maintain a personal lingustic relationship with their child."

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