I listened with great interest to last week’s episode of YLE News’ All Points North podcast, in which American Allyana Thomas talked about moving to Finland, trying unsuccessfully to learn Finnish, and then switching to Swedish in order to integrate into society and qualify for citizenship. (Among other requirements, you have to speak and write either Finnish or Swedish in order to be granted citizenship.) Language politics are a not insignificant part of life here in Finland, and like Ms. Thomas, Jeremy and I carefully considered our language options in 2015 when we were planning to move here.
Back then, we thought we might be able to make a strategic choice to learn Swedish instead of Finnish. We have both studied German before and so Swedish would have been a logical and, honestly, easy language for us to learn. We thought it might be possible to put all our eggs in the Swedish basket and get by in Finland that way. On paper, from a distance, it certainly seemed to make sense: Turku is bilingual not only officially but practically, with many Swedish-speaking communities in surrounding areas and several options for Swedish schools and daycares. And Finnish is just so hard! We have learned languages from scratch so many times and it was overwhelming to think of doing it all over again.
But we talked to a Finnish friend and listened to her and our own good sense and eventually decided that while we might be able to carve out a quasi-Swedish existence in certain enclaves of Turku, on the whole, it was Finnish that we’d need to learn in order to truly integrate into society, the workplace, and our own community. And that has been our reality in the three years since: putting all our linguistic energy into learning Finnish, and sparing none for Swedish. For us, this was unequivocally the right choice.
If it was just a matter of the citizenship language test, or navigating official paperwork, or operating in limited social circles, Swedish would have been the better choice. I would even add that if I didn’t mind obliging employees in shops and offices on a day-to-day basis to serve me in Swedish, that still would have been fine. But the fact is that Swedish would help me almost not at all in my own work environment – it’s almost exclusively Finnish and English there. I think I have heard more German at work meetings than Swedish! And realistically, I would probably not feel comfortable requesting service around town in Swedish, even though I have the right to do so.
It seems that citizenship and integration are two separate issues. Swedish, for us, may at one point have been the fastest track to the former. But in our situation, Finnish is the only option for the latter, and I’m glad we realized that before we moved here.