Finished with Finnish?

Sunset in the Åland archipelago

In her opinion piece in Helsingin Sanomat, Annikka Mutanen picked up on the predicted population decline in the numbers of Finnish people: At the end of this century, the number of people in Finland with Finnish roots will have fallen below 2 million. I won't be around anymore to experience this, but my children have a good chance to.

One fear is that Finnish culture will disappear once the vast majority of people in this country are of foreign origin. I am not worried about Finnish culture disappearing as long as we manage to avoid dividing the population into "Foreigners" and "Finns." However, Finland could do a much better job of integrating foreigners into society. Again, the Finnish language must be at the centre of such efforts.

Language is critical to preserve culture
The history of Hungary is an example of how language and culture can survive genetic replacement. Although Hungary was populated (similar to Finland) from the East, only small parts of the original invaders' gene pool survived due to intensive genetic exchange with the neighbouring cultures. Compared to the Hungarians, much more of the original Finnish gene pool has survived into modern times. In fact, so much has survived that the perhaps only meaningful genetic distinction among Europeans is the one between Finns and Non-Finns*. Many researchers believe that one important factor in the preservation of the Hungarian cultural identity might have been the language with which children were socialized.

English as a 3rd official language at the University of Helsinki?
In the past, I have been a proponent of English language use at my university, including making English the 3rd official language, next to Finnish and Swedish. However, I am not so sure anymore. The integration of foreign scholars has rapidly advanced at the research level. However, it is lagging at the teaching level and close to absent at the administration level. Therefore, pointing to the high numbers of foreign students, researchers, and professors does not tell the whole story. As much as I want to advance the integration of foreign scholars at all levels, I am not so sure anymore whether this should be done by promoting English to the status of third official language at the university. The promotion of English as an official language (a step which some continental European universities have been taking) is likely not happening at the University of Helsinki any time soon. However, the proximal cause is financial: every university document would have to have an officially approved English version (and it is difficult enough to do this with Swedish).

We need opportunities to practise our Finnish
I have been giving my first lecture in Finnish to undergraduate students last semester. It was a catastrophe. I clearly need more exercise in speaking Finnish. But where do I get this exercise? In almost all work-related interactions, we need to use English not to exclude participants without Finnish language abilities, which we have many due to our successful internationalization. I really wished my mother (who is Finnish) had brought us up bilingually. But at the time in Germany, many people believed that two languages were too much for the developing brain. I can attest from my own children that even four languages works reasonably well. My attempts to find a language buddy (i.e. somebody with whom I can talk on a regular basis in Finnish) have been not exactly successful, even though it was a requirement in my kieliboosti language course. On Friday afternoons, we have "Suomi Kahvi" on the 4th floor of Viikki Biocenter 2, and I mostly try to participate. However, the participants of our Suomikahvi display a great variety of Finnish language proficiency, which complicates talking about more complicated topics.**

The real problem is to keep Finland populated
All above is side-tracking us from the real problem: Finland has to compete with other countries to attract young people to become citizens. It is totally backwards that our government makes it more difficult to become a Finnish citizen. At the same time, Germany is going exactly into the opposite direction: In January, Germany changed the law making it much easier for foreigners to get a German passport. Instead of waiting for 8 years, foreigners can now apply after 5 and sometimes even after only 3 years for German citizenship. Guess which country will be more attractive to foreigners! Looking at the migration numbers, Finland could gain a lot by trying to keep the foreigners already in Finland. But at the moment, even I cannot find enough good reasons to convince any of my foreign students to stay here for work or an academic career. Clean water and air, midnight sun and moderate summer temperatures are not enough! At least not if you aim at anything beyond summer slacking.


* Here, it might be important to note that the European gene pool has been thoroughly mixed throughout history and that it is questionable to draw arbitrarily genetic distinctions, with the exception of Finland. If any genetic distinction can be drawn between European people, then it is the single distinction between "Finns" and "Non-Finns" ( Interestingly, the dividing line runs across Finland: People in Western Finland are genetically "Non-Finns", while in the Eastern, they are "genetically Finnish" ( This, of course, goes totally against the concept of genetically determining your status as a citizen. The US were more than a hundred years ahead of Europe when they decided in 1868 that citizenship should be primarily based on where you are born. The supremacy of "Arian blood" was used to justify the German atrocities of 1933-1945. However, most European countries are still, some more and some less, clinging to the anachronistic definition of citizenship via blood relationships.

** My requirements for time and place perhaps aggravate my inability to find a language buddy. Since time is a precious resource, I would like to combine exercising my Finnish with exercising my muscles during the lunch break. But obviously, the number of Finnish native speakers who are able to and willing to join me for a run around noon somewhere near Viikki and to converse simultaneously in Finish is zero - so far.