Helsinki Mayor Wants to Declare City an English-Speaking Area

The mayor of Helsinki, Finland attracted no small amount of controversy recently with a suggestion from the city’s mayor that the capital rebrand itself as an English-speaking city in order to attract more foreign workers. Currently, the constitution of Finland defines the official languages of the country as Finnish and Swedish and requires proficiency in one or both languages is required for many private and all public sector employees. In an age of growing worker mobility, there are fears that a requirement, or a perceived requirement, to master the official languages of the country will be seen as a detriment to immigration by skilled workers.

Rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the premier startup hubs in Europe, Helsinki has been attracting foreign talent for a number of years. This, combined with initiatives like the 90 Day Finn foreign worker scheme, and the fact that Finland is an aging society with a declining employment age population —  a phenomenon seen in many European countries — has led to calls for making the country and its society more accessible to foreigners.


Finland is no stranger to linguistic strife — with Finnish itself only regaining prominence in education and affairs of state in the 19th, at the end of a prolonged period of colonization by the Kingdom of Sweden. Indeed, the shifting linguistic fortunes of the country have made Swedish a true minority language, and the drive to declare Helsinki and English-speaking city has been met with concern not only by Finnish speakers but native Swedish speakers as well. 

Underlying all of this are the assumptions on the part of Helsinki’s mayor — that all non-Finns speak English, that English is the main way to attract foreign workers, that workers brought to Finland under such auspices will stay in the country without seriously impacting the linguistic structure of the society — that either have yet to be put to a real world test, or have shown mixed results when they have been.

Whatever the final outcome, the mere fact that the suggestion was made speaks volumes about the modern economy and how market forces interact with socioeconomic, demographic, and sociolinguistic ones in the 21st century. 

Michael Reid
Michael Reid, Managing Editor at MultiLingual, is an educator, translator, and language, culture, and diversity consultant who lives in Athens, Greece, with over 20 years of experience. He speaks six languages fluently and another seven to basic competence. He also speaks just enough Klingon to negotiate safe passage through the Neutral Zone.

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