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Vantaa now has more speakers of Russian and Estonian than Swedish

Russian and Estonian speakers now outnumber Swedish speakers in the city of Vantaa. As the country’s second national language, the status of the Swedish language is protected by law, but pressure is mounting to offer services in Russian and Estonian as well. The change is already apparent in the city’s recruiting efforts.

Päiväkoti Matrjushkassa leikitään kahdella kielellä.
Budding bilinguals at the Matrjoshka Day Care Centre in Vantaa.

Talk at the Matrjoshka Day Care Centre switches nimbly between Russian and Finnish as children play. Some of the 28 children in the group are from bilingual homes, while others come from families speaking only Russian. Still others speak three languages in their home: Russian, Finnish and Estonian.

A few members of the day care staff speak both Finnish and Russian, but others speak only Finnish. Children quickly learn to choose their language of discussion accordingly. The goal of the day care is provide the children with an equal command of Finnish and Russian by the time the children are of kindergarten age.

Some of the children will continue their studies at the specialised Finnish-Russian School in Helsinki, while others will keep up their Russian skills in a Vantaa classroom. Jaana Teräväinen, Director of Matrjoshka and its sister facility Teremok, says language proficiency is the key to successful learning.  

“If you study at a Finnish school, you either have to speak Finnish or preserve your native proficiency in your mother tongue. This is because without a strong native language, it is very difficult to learn new languages. Finnish schools arrange for language maintenance instruction and preparatory pre-school instruction is available to children who are judged to have poor Finnish skills, so I think Vantaa has done quite well in this regard,” she says.

Bilingual day care secure in Vantaa

While similar services were recently discontinued in Helsinki, the future of bilingual day care in Vantaa is likely to be secure. Even if the city were to stop purchasing the outsourced services, they could be continued with service vouchers. The goal is that specialized day care should never cost more than municipally-provided services.

Teräväinen says centres such as theirs have had to start waiting lines, as the numbers of Russian and Estonian speakers have grown. Statistics show Vantaa now has 5,900 Russian, 5,800 Estonian and 5,700 Swedish-speaking inhabitants. Increased immigration has changed the bilingual day care’s dynamic completely.

“When our first day care, Teremok, was founded in the late 80s, it was because we wanted Finnish children to learn Russian. Then slowly, over time, bilingual children joined the group. Now, more and more immigrant families are coming all the time,” says Teräväinen.

As the number of migrant families grows, many look to day care centres to help them adjust to their new surroundings, even though this is not formally part of their work.  

“Particularly in the autumn, there are many newly-arrived families that ask us for help with practical matters. I have to say, however, that Russians are very good about helping each other out; they have a very close-knit community. The City of Vantaa also currently informs about its services quite well.”

Service in Russian on the city’s help line

Vantaa’s telephone help lines and service points have been quick to make changes in response to the growth in Russian and Estonian speakers. Municipal Services Director Iiris Lehtonen says workers that can speak Russian have been recruited and there are plans to hire even more.

“When you move about the city, you can hear Russian wherever you go. It is the language of the future. Young people weighing which language to study should note that Russian is king right now,” says Lehtonen.

Finland’s language laws guarantee service in Swedish and statistics suggest that Vantaa will remain a bilingual city until at least the year 2040. Even so, Lehtonen admits that the city has no longer required its new employees to show an actual command of Swedish.

“Municipal workers are required to speak Swedish, but in practice it is another matter entirely. Of the 11,000 employees working for Vantaa, only six per cent report a native language other than Finnish. We have no way of knowing if there are people who can speak both Russian and Swedish well, but it doesn’t really matter. We have plenty of people who can speak Swedish, but it is Russian speakers we need!”

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