Times, spaces and discursive cycles of Finnish constitutional bilingualism: universities as sites of neo-nationalist language policies

Universities are unique windows into Finnish language policy and the constitutional bilingualism of the country. Finnish language policies and the related ideological tensions have historically been debated and made visible in universities, be it in the mid 19th century developments with the increasing role of Finnish as the language of higher education of the emerging nation, or in the 1930s’ language conflicts at the University of Helsinki during the right wing nationalistic political wave. The earlier language debates revolved around the delicate balance between the national languages, Finnish and Swedish. English, on the other hand, has been viewed favourably in the Finnish society, and has in fact since the 1990s made Swedish the de facto third rather than second national language in higher education.  Swedish, having historically been the language of the establishment, has throughout the Finnish history been a de facto minority language in Finland. 

However, the most recent language ideological debates in Finnish higher education have in the 2000s been triggered by the increased use of English, exemplified by the complaints made to the Chancellor of Justice’s office in recent years about the uses of English in university tuition. Thus, internationalisation has made language diversity in universities also more visible and linked Finland, somewhat belatedly, to the neo-nationalist developments that have emerged in Western countries in the form of increased focus on the national interests in global developments. The current political situation in Finland, with the strengthening of populist parties and movements such as the Finns Party creates increased tensions particularly on the position of Swedish; the recent backlash in Finnish higher education against English appears largely motivated by the ideological protection of Finnish rather than of the constitutional bilingualism.

This project analyses universities as sites of neo-nationalist language policies, by focussing on the historically cycled language policies on one hand, and on the spatially construed and situated language policies on the other. The neo-nationalist frame acknowledges the effects of globalization on how nations and national interests are construed and illuminates tensions in the Finnish constitutional bilingualism made visible by the increased use of English.



Funding: Svenska Kulturfonden (2018-2020)