Finland has two official languages. Finnish is spoken by 90 per cent of the population and Swedish by 6 per cent.
According to the Finnish constitution, an individual has the right to use his or her own national language, Finnish or Swedish, before the authorities. The Language Act concerns the constitutionally determined national languages: Finnish and Swedish. The Language Act was first imposed in 1922 and it was renewed in 2004. In addition to Finnish and Swedish, there is also a third language, Sámi, that has legal status.
Most Finns are fluent in foreign languages. English has become the most popular foreign language and it is widely spoken.
Satisfactory oral and written skills in Finnish or Swedish are a requirement for obtaining Finnish citizenship.
Finnish belongs to the small Finno-Ugrian language group. Finnish is an agglutinative language in which most words are formed by joining morphemes together.
The first comprehensive writing system for Finnish was created the in 16th century by Mikael Agricola. He based his orthography on Swedish, German and Latin. Agricola’s aim was to translate the Bible, but first he had to define rules for Finnish. Finnish standard language still relies on these rules.
From the 16th to 19th century, Finnish was used almost exclusively in the religious context and by peasants. Governance was mainly conducted in Swedish, which was also the language of the high society. In the 19th century, the idea of Finnish as a fully-fledged national language gained considerable support. By the end of the century, Finnish had become a language that was spoken widely throughout society.
The official status of Swedish is stated in the Finnish constitution. The official status has historical roots as Finland was a part of the Swedish realm from the 13th century until 1809.
Most Swedish speakers live in coastal areas and in the Åland Islands. In the Åland Islands, Swedish is the only official language. This means that Swedish is the language used by regional, municipal and state authorities.
Public authorities are required to provide for the cultural and societal needs of both Finnish and Swedish speakers on an equal basis. This means that various social services, education and information must be provided in both languages.
Depending on their mother tongue, all Finnish schoolchildren have Finnish or Swedish lessons as a compulsorily part of their education.
There is also a third language that has a legal status. Sámi is spoken in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. Sámi linguistic rights are secured by the Sámi Language Act (revised in 2004). The Act contains provisions on the rights of the Sámi to use their own language before the courts and other public authorities, as well as on the duty of the authorities to enforce and promote the linguistic rights of the Sámi.
All in all there are nine different Sámi languages that are currently spoken. Three are spoken in the Sámi region of Northern Finland: North Sámi, Inari Sámi and Skolt Sámi. North Sámi is spoken by approximately 2,000 people. Even though they have their own language, Sámi usually also speak Finnish.
North Sámi is the most widely spoken of these languages with approximately 20,000 speakers in Finland, Norway and Sweden. Inari Sámi is spoken exclusively in Finland. Skolt Sámi is spoken in Finland and Russia. Both Inari and Skolt Sámi languages have approximately 300 speakers. North Sámi is an endangered language; Inari and Skolt Sámi are severely endangered languages.
All primary and lower secondary schools within the Sámi Homeland provide education in the Sámi language. Under Finnish law, Sámi-speaking students living in the Sámi Homeland have the right to receive most of their primary education in the Sámi language. Sámi language activity and teaching in each Sámi language have somewhat increased the use of the languages.
4.2 per cent of the population speak a language other than Finnish, Swedish or Sámi as a mother tongue. The largest foreign languages are: