Following the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, Welsh has official status in Wales and cannot be treated any less favourably than English. You have the right to access public services through the medium of Welsh in person and in correspondence. You have the right to use Welsh in court. You have the freedom to use the language without hindrance from others. This is obviously a good thing. But whilst Wales might have two languages that must be treated equally by certain arms of the state, this doesn’t mean that language isn’t a politically sensitive area of public discourse. Tensions often flare up when decisions have to be made about new schools and how much money should be invested in the provision of Welsh when it comes to broadcasting. People question the role of the Welsh Language Commissioner, whose job it is to promote and protect the right to use Welsh. Every translation mistake or spelling error on a Welsh sign seems like a news story about how pointless or important the language is (depending on your point of view). It often seems like we’re completely consumed by our language issues.
In order to inject some objectivity into the debates bubbling away in Wales, our policy-makers are often on the look for comparisons- other countries that have a fairly hefty number of minority language speakers. One comparison that’s often drawn is with Finland. The Nordic countries are trendy. We in the UK like to read about the Nordic countries. These countries actively encourage paternity leave, are known for having better work-life balances, for being happier, for having multi-party democracies that depend on inter-party cooperation, for having national drink problems and debates about immigration and integration. The Nordics are like Britain in some respects, but in other respects, they couldn’t be further away from us. They unquestionably have better words than we do in English (or Welsh, for that matter):
- Lagom (Swedish): exactly enough, a moderation of anything (food, money, happiness)
- Hygge (Danish): cosiness and warmth
- Dugnadsånd (Norwegian): the spirit of working together for the benefit of the community.
- Kyykkyviini (Finnish): “squat wine”, the cheapest wine placed on the lowest shelves in the state alcohol monopolies in Finland.
- Gluggaveður (Icelandic): “window weather”, you look out of the window and it looks nice, but when you actually step outside it’s not as clement as you thought and you haven’t got the right jacket on.
- Mjørki (Faroese): a belt of fog through which you can pass in an aeroplane or boat.
But why is Finland a good point of comparison? Why does the Welsh Government like to send teachers over there on reconnaissance missions? Finnish is overwhelmingly the majority language, however, Finns have the right to access services in Swedish as well. In Finland, place names often have both a Finnish and a Swedish variant.
But how useful is the Wales-Finland comparison? Well, in terms of the number of speakers, the official status, the use of the language at government level and speaker rights, it’s not a bad one. In both countries, there is a minority language that has official status, is used by the Government and is a mandatory subject in school. Where the speakers of both languages are to be found also makes it an attractive comparison, in both countries we see speaker communities of the minority language increasing in number the further towards the sea we get.
Linguistic typology is the sub-discipline of Linguistics that examines how similar or dissimilar languages are to each other. It tries to group languages together and describe patterns and trends in the sounds and grammars of the languages of the world. For typological reasons, Finland does make for a good comparison with Wales. The language pairs in both countries are quite distant. Finnish isn’t, from a typologist’s perspective, a European language: it belongs to the Uralic Family of Language and Swedish is a member of the Indo-European Family. Finnish has grammatical case (like German, but many, many more!) which means that nouns change depending on the function they play in a sentence. So the word ‘house’ in Finnish could appear as any of the following options (to name but a few):
Swedish doesn’t have anything like this, like English it doesn’t really have grammatical case, having effectively dumped it centuries ago. Welsh and English, meanwhile, are in the same language family (the Indo-European Family), however, are part of different (and arguably distant) branches: Welsh is a Celtic language and English is a (West-) Germanic language. Welsh has a number of features English doesn’t:
- Verb-Subject-Object word order
- Two different number systems
- Rare sounds (represented by the letters Mh, Nh, Ngh, Ll, Rh)
So when we think about policymakers and educators trying to promote the use of the minority language in Finland and Wales or public service provision and the linguistic demands placed on the public sector, we might think that it’s going to be objectively “harder”. It’s not like Spanish and Catalan (estimates vary, but lost of linguisticians reckon that 80%-85% of words are mutually intelligible in Catalan and Spanish), or like Swedish and Norwegian, or even German or Dutch or the different varieties of modern Arabic. If you stand outside the gates of Lisbon’s Castelo de São Jorge in August you can see and hear a flock of hassled Spanish tour guides speaking Spanish loudly to the castle staff who in turn are speaking emphatically and calmly back in Portuguese. Eventually, they sort it out and the guides can move their crowds through the castle towards the inflight-magazine-like views over beautiful Lisbon. It works. You can’t, however, just speak Welsh at a non-Welsh-speaker speaker and expect them to work it out, nor can a Finnish speaker just speak Finnish at a non-Finnish-speaking person and expect them to fill in the gaps. There are just too many gaps.
Another parallel can be found in the form of angry people writing irate comments on Twitter in both countries. Wales and Finland both have the problem that there are a substantial number (or perhaps a loud minority) of people who object to the presence of an official minority language in their country. These people say that the minority language isn’t necessary and that money spent on promoting it or providing services for its speakers could be better spent elsewhere. There are also concerns that Finnish kids should be learning languages other than Swedish, languages that are “more useful”. On the opposite side of the debate, just like Welsh speakers in Wales, Swedish speakers in Finland are becoming concerned about speaker numbers. This is one of the most compelling reasons for justifying using Finland as a point of comparison with Wales; both countries enjoy a degree of linguistic policy controversy and both countries’ speakers are anxious about the longevity of their language’s presence in their country.
However, this is where the comparison probably stops. This brief overview tells us that lots of things are similar, however, the differences between the linguistic cultures of Finland and Wales couldn’t be further apart. The primary reason concerns attitudes towards languages. The UK is, primarily, a monolingual country. 62% of Britons can’t speak any other language apart from English. English is a behemoth that dominates the world and it’s no surprise that this necessarily means that the people in natively-English speaking countries like the UK have ever-diminishing interest in speaking or listening to anything that isn’t English. English is language, is very much the mentality, a mindset visible in the dreadful phrase “foreign language”. It’s also no surprise that this UK-national mentality is also reflected in Wales. Foreign language uptake at GCSE level is plummetting in Wales, with school management seemingly increasingly disinterested in giving their pupils linguistic access to the outside world. Perhaps Brexit will change this, as our politicians seek to close out Europe, we may find future generations are suddenly more interested in languages as a means of pushing back against cultural isolationism. But for the time being, “English is all we need” is the majority view in the UK. If it’s not the majority view or at least the status quo. Learning another language is often seen as being some kind of ostentatious, intellectual hobby (“Who wants to learn Welsh in London!?” exclaims every single person I have ever met in London in reply to my response about what I do for a living).
The situation in Finland is the complete inverse. The Finns are amongst the most multilingual people on the face of the earth. 9 out of 10 Finns can speak at least one other language apart from Finnish. Finnish schools often introduce languages through content and language integrated learning, a method in which the language is taught incidentally alongside or integrated into teaching the subject matter. This is done from an early age in Finnish schools meaning that Finnish kids are well-used to hearing and using languages other than Finnish. Moreover, they’re used to actually using other languages in a way with extends well beyond the unstimulating 2 hours of Welsh second language lessons provided to secondary school kids in Wales.
In Finland, monolingualism isn’t normal- isn’t weird. Monolinguals (if you can find one) are seen as being uneducated and parochial. If you sit in a coffee shop in Helsinki or any other Finnish town during the summer, you can witness the linguistic trapezist Finn in action. The person behind the counter takes an order for coffees in English from an American freshly disembarked from a cruise ship, then speaks in Finnish to her colleague before serving a customer in Swedish. When she clears a table she gives some directions in German to some tourists and then speaks a few words of Russian with the child of a Russian couple. In Britain, this person would have their own oversubscribed Youtube channel and or be a high-flying academic at a London University. In Finland, she’s just a normal person. Nothing fancy about speaking 5 languages in as many minutes. This difference in attitudes matters. How can Wales be compared to a country like Finland? How can we compare the ways the two languages are promoted and used in both countries when their baseline linguistic cultural attitudes are so astoundingly different?
Another point at which Swedish in Finland and Welsh in Wales go their radically separate ways is when we think of Finland as a country. Finland is an independent republic, whose official languages are also both official languages of the EU. Swedish is also spoken outside of Finland. Just across the Gulf of Bothnia lies Sweden; once the colonial power in Finland. Stockholm will always be the destination of choice for young Swedish-speaking Finns. Welsh doesn’t have a comparably linguistically enticing neighbour (the presence of Welsh in Patagonia in Argentina is unquestionably exciting, but you can’t nip over on the ferry). One of the main problems in Wales is convincing people of the worth of learning Welsh, and whilst we’ve got lots of cultural reasons readily available, we often struggle to make an economic case for learning Welsh when questioned by a belligerent monolingual.
Åland is the last point of difference I think needs a mention. The Åland Islands is an autonomous region of Finland spreading across over 6000 islands between Sweden’s eastern coast and Turku on the west coast of Finland. The Islands are staunchly proud of their astoundingly beautiful skerries and islands. They have their own flag, their own national anthem, parliament, number plates and stamps (as they are keen to point out to tourists). Ålanders are also exempt from Finnish national service as their islands are completely demilitarised. Islanders are Finns, however, are monolingually Swedish. We in Wales might have Ynys Môn, but we don’t have anything like Åland. There are no monolingually Welsh areas or people in Wales anymore. Growing up in North Pembrokeshire we had some elderly neighbours in the village who struggled to speak English on the rare occasions they needed to, but people with these kinds of linguistic profiles will soon disappear from Wales.
So what’s important when it comes to comparisons? Speaker numbers and official status matter. But culture and attitudes to other languages play a hugely important role- perhaps the most important role. It’s difficult to think of what the perfect linguistic comparison with Wales might be. Comparing Wales with a country that’s “better” at something, like education, doesn’t mean it’s not useful. The point of the exploratory missions by teachers was to see what might be emulated back in Wales. However, when we start thinking about language use and how people feel about languages in general, then perhaps we need to question what we might get out of comparing Cymru with Suomi. When we place Wales and Finland “wholesale” next to each other, they couldn’t look more different, but perhaps we need to look at the comparison on a smaller scale, e.g. by comparing individual towns, communities or families. Perhaps a comparison that looks at an approach in an individual Finnish school and compares it with an individual Welsh school might prove useful. What is the best comparison with Wales? Who knows. But useful and interesting comparisons need to consider linguistic culture and attitudes. If we don’t take into account national linguistic mindsets then we might end up being too aspirational and unrealistic in our policies, outlooks and hopes for our own country.