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Would optional Swedish widen Finland’s social divide?

YLE NewsEye on the Arctic

Swedish-language advocate Paavo Lipponen is relieved that politicians are demonstrating a more positive attitude towards learning Swedish, the other official language of Finland.

Former prime minister Paavo Lipponen and chairperson for the Svenska Nu (“Swedish Now”) movement says that making Swedish language optional in the Finnish school system where it’s currently mandatory would increase inequality.

A recent parliamentary poll indicates that more than 40 members of parliament have changed their anti-compulsory Swedish lessons attitudes for more positive ones since the 2011 elections.

This follows on the heels of a recent citizens’ initiative that gathered more than 60,000 signatures opposing mandatory Swedish, which will be considered by Parliament at a later date.

Lipponen believes that more affluent and educated families would choose Swedish-language studies, which would further widen the social gap.

“Language skills would be reduced,” said Lipponen in an Yle TV interview this morning. “We need the expertise of all the people when we will deal with globalisation.”

Lipponen’s remarks mirror the results of a study by Taloustutkimus, an independent market research firm, last month. At that time, a Finnish study found that the majority of respondents who wanted Swedish-language instruction to be made optional were Social Democratic Party and Finns party supporters.

“Industrial blue-collar workers may not see any benefit in learning Swedish language, but the highly educated can see the benefits,” said Taloustutkimus researcher manager Juho Rahkonen in August.

In Finland, pupils must study the country’s other official language by secondary school at the latest. In Eastern Finland, for example, many students would like to study Russian instead of Swedish.

Lipponen emphasizes that he supports all language learning. “When it comes to language, Finland is a small country and all young people should have the same opportunities to succeed.”

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.