New Finnish Language Act: progress in language legislation?
Dépêche de Eurolang

Publié le 7/03/04 7:47 -- mis à jour le 00/00/00 00:00

by Annika-Elisa Juurikko

A new Finnish Language Act came into force on 1st January 2004 and replaced the old Act of 1922. Like the old Act, the new one only concerns the constitutionally determined national languages, which are Finnish and Swedish. The new Act does not entail any new language rights: its primary objective is to ensure the realization of these rights in practice. What is new is that the Act prescribes that the authorities shall on their own initiative see to the realization of the language rights of individuals without them having to claim these rights themselves.

The Language Act refrains from taking a position on the linguistic rights of speakers of other languages resident in Finland or on the right to use the Roma language or sign language. Provisions on the use of the Sami language are included in a separate Act which also came into force at the same time.

Background to the revision

The most important reason for establishing the Language Act Committee to make a draft for the law proposal for the new Language Act was the new Constitution of Finland, which had come into force in 1.3.2000. In it, the principles of Finland being an officially bilingual country and the equality of the national languages, the language rights and the responsibilities of the authorities were enforced. Considering these new regulations it was necessary to evaluate the changes they would cause to the language legislation. Another reason, among others, was that the provisions of the previous Act were terse and often difficult to interpret and apply.

Authorities concerned by the Act

The Language Act contains exact provisions on the right to use Finnish and Swedish before the authorities and courts of law sets a minimum level of language rights. As mentioned above, what is new is that it obliges authorities to take a proactive approach in ensuring an individual’s language rights.

As with the old Language Act, the new Act divides authorities into monolingual or bilingual. This affects both the linguistic rights of the individual and the duties of the authorities. The duty to serve customers in both languages is broader for the bilingual authority than for the monolingual one.

State-level authorities, Ministries for example, are always bilingual. A municipality is bilingual according to the ration of its Swedish and Finnish -speaking inhabitants. If the minority of either language group is at least eight percent, the municipality is counted as bilingual.

The bilingual authority is obliged to serve in two languages. Inside the authority, every employee does not have to know two languages, but the work inside the authority should be planned in a way that the service can be given in both languages, when necessary.

With monolingual authorities, in matters involving the fundamental rights of an individual, such as taking a child into custody, the party concerned is always entitled to use his or her own language regardless of the language of the municipality. In exceptional situations, for example, in an emergency situation, every Ministry is responsible for giving the essential information to secure a person’s life, health, security as well as property and environment in both languages, independent of the language used in the area or municipality.

The Language Act in Practice

“There was a strong will to draft a law that really works”, says the secretary of the Language Act Committee and current language rights secretary of Svenska Folktinget (Swedish Assembly of Finland) Kristina Beijar. “In the revision process, the committee did not compare the new draft to the old Language Act, but had as its aim to put the regulations of the Constitution into practice. This was a strong starting-point.”

When it comes to the future of the new Act, she is optimistic, telling Eurolang: “Two new official positions have been set up for the Ministry of Justice to follow, to give training and advice on the appliance of the new Language Act. Already 2000 officials of the municipalities and the local governmental offices have been trained to apply the law correctly.

“According to the new Act, the Government gives an annual report of the state of the appliance of the Language Act. The Ministry of Finance has also set a working group to map out how public services should be arranged in order to put the Language Act into practice, and the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities has also started a project, the aim of which is to put the new law in practice efficiently.

“According to the progress report of the working group of the Ministry of Finance, the best way to have the law applied efficiently is to continuously give public information concerning it, but also to give advice at the individual level.”

According to the Act, both government and municipal employees of Authorities shall be responsible for maintaining the practical language skills of its employees. When employing new staff, the Authorities shall pay regard to the actual language skills required in the work.

The attitude of the officials towards using Swedish is often passive. According to Kristina Beijar there have been, and still are, projects, the aim of which is to encourage the Finnish-speaking officials to use Swedish more, which are, as she believes, an important way to have the linguistic rights of the Swedish-speaking minority more effectively implemented.

Eurolang also spoke to Erik Meckwitz, Secretary General of the Svenska Folktinget, who welcomed the Act commenting that it had been received “quite well”. He added that “the majority of Finnish have taken it very seriously and are doing a huge job to respond to the new law, I see that as a very good sign.”

The revision of the Sami Language Act

The Sami Language Act has also been revised and also came into force on January 1st, some of the postive changes were that the new posts will be set up in the Sami-speaking areas to ensure the delivery of public services in Sami language in individual’s own dealings or when hearing him in the authority.

Legal Secretary of the Sami Parliament, Mr Heikki Hyvärinen, sees the main problem being the lack of money given to the authorities to ensure that enough posts go to Sami-speakers and the maintenance of the Sami language skills.

”The new Act allows State officials to take paid leave of absence to study Sami. When it comes to the municipal authorities, the municipality considers the demand for such language study. As the municipalities do not have enough money to support their officials in studying Sami language, it does not necessarily allow the officials paid leave of absence for this reason, this endangers the realization of language rights.”


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