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The Åland Peace Blog

Since the very beginning (in 1992) the Åland Islands Peace Institute has
worked with questions of security, minorities and autonomy. The purpose is
to prevent and manage conflicts, always with a gender awareness. Throughout
the years we have gathered knowledge and strengthened expertise within these
areas, and a new phase was initiated in 2007 with the development of the
Peace Institute's research and investigation capacity. The Peace Institute
arranges seminars, conferences and courses within these areas and regularly
publishes reports and books. We believe that some of the knowledge and
the insights that we acquire should be disseminated to a wider public in a
shorter and quicker form. This is why we are creating the blog. It is
knowledge-oriented and analyzes or comments briefly - but quickly -
news, events and phenomena with the purpose of providing deeper
understanding. The staff and the board of the Peace Institute will
contribute to the blog.

Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark
Director of the Peace Institute, Associate Professor in International Law


Sarah Stephan is a researcher at the ÅIPI and also functions as the Project Manager for the project Open Doors that is focusing on gender equality, empowerment and participation in Azerbaijan.  
Sarah's research interests include European and Public International Law, in particular post-conflict governance and multilevel governance in the European Union and beyond. 
Sarah holds an LL.M.  in Public International Law from Helsinki University and a Bachelor’s degree in European and Comparative Law from the Hanse Law School of the Universities of Bremen and Oldenburg.

South Tyrol, Italy, June 2013

During the past three years I have had the pleasure to make a minor contribution and follow with great interest the FP7 project "European Language Diversity for All". In mid-June the University of Vienna hosted the project's closing conference, where for the first time all case-studies as well as the overall project results were presented. Minority languages, Finno-Ugric minority languages to be more precise, were the subject of the ELDIA studies. The aim of the consortium was not only to study the use and maintenance of the languages in question and to map the political and socio-economic situation of the respective language communities. We also undertook to look at language minorities from the perspective of individual multilingualism and language diversity. One central task was “to investigate how the attitudes of majority and minority stakeholders occupied in the fields of legislation, media and the educational system, and the attitudes of private language users influence the short-term tactical and the long-term strategic choices concerning the use of vehicular and minority languages”.

Although the research results show that the situations of many of the minority languages are concerning, to say the least, in terms of vitality, with only limited opportunities to speak the languages in question, ELDIA does not conceive of language use as a zero-sum game. As has been reasoned in the original project plan the central idea is “on par with a novel understanding of  European  multilingualism as the parallel use of national and/or regional/minority languages alongside one or more international vehicular language(s). In accordance with this reading, multilingualism and the regular use of a vehicular language and a regional/minority language is not only a central part of European cultural and historical heritage but also a bona fide phenomenon with a significant impact on the identities and general well-being of European citizens.” In view of the project results we might today rather want to speak of intertwined language use instead of parallel.

The work of the legal researchers in ELDIA has shown that although multilingualism and language diversity are often described as goals on the European level and feature also on the national level, these abstract declarations become rarely part of legislation or concrete policies. Although few would deny the value of multilingualism and language diversity, it seems that we find it rather difficult to envisage systems that allow for multilingualism and language diversity outside the private sphere. Or in other terms, we seem to find it rather difficult to translate individual multilingualism into societal language diversity.  Much harder are then questions of diversity management with respect to languages.

Keynote speaker Michel Strubell, at the ELDIA closing conference, displayed a graph showing a slight decline in the number of Swedish-speakers in Finland between 1990 and 2010. Strubell used this graph to illustrate the fact that even in the case of Finland, where Swedish as a de-facto minority language has constitutive status, the minority language is at the decline. I do not intend to question such numbers and even less so the fact that the Swedish language is facing many challenges in Finland, however, I reacted to this chart wondering whether this could not also tell us something about how we think about multilingualism.

In fact, two of the ELDIA case studies focused on Finland, the Estonian language and the Karelian language respectively, and a legal framework analysis has been conducted for both these minority languages. While Finland has rather refined language legislation with public authorities providing services in Finnish and Swedish (to different degrees based on territorial considerations), I would argue that the legal and political system in Finland, albeit allowing for genuine multilingualism in many spheres of life, does not recognize its citizens as multilingual and might be blind for the need to devise fit strategies for diversity management.

My personal experience suggests that there is not only a relatively large population with competences in both official languages, Finnish and Swedish, but that many individuals would consider both languages as their native languages or mother tongues. While the public register in Finland will give you an indication about societal language diversity, it will not tell you very much about individual multilingualism.  In Finland, you are either a Finnish-speaker or a Swedish-speaker, at least what concerns the public registers.

While the practice of registering only one mother tongue might have practical reasons and is apparently seen a guarantor for the survival of Swedish language schools and other public services, to me it seems utterly in contradiction to the factual multilingualism that I find so impressive here in Finland. A report of 2010 suggests that 40% of Swedish-speaking men and one-third of Swedish-speaking women choose to marry a Finnish-speaking partner.[1] The report also notes that while in the 1970s children born into such marriages were predominantly registered as Finnish-speakers, this trend has reversed and today two-thirds are registered as Swedish-speaking. Thus, practices and preferences change but they always remain diverse and, when forced to register either one language, people will make different choices. To those with only one mother tongue, this system might do justice but it might also have an adverse impact on the identities of individuals with more than one mother tongue. A unilingual approach is then largely pursued in the Finnish educational system with possible adverse effects on the confidence and proficiency in one of multiple mother tongues. Research into this is certainly needed, not least as to whether and in which way such registration practices shape linguistic identities.  Let me emphasize that I do not mean to pinpoint Finland in this respect, in fact I believe that the case of Finland exemplifies how many of us think about multilingualism and language diversity. We find it hard to devise strategies and effective policies that would do justice to the wealth of linguistic identities we find in Europe.

The empirical research in ELDIA shows that the weak public support for minority languages during many decades has led to the fact that minority languages are used less actively and that revitalization strategies are needed in order to make a multilingual life possible for the speakers of minority languages. However, instead of looking at statistics, which depict ‘languaging’ as a zero-sum game we should aim at empowering speakers to not only to increase but also to exploit in every possible way their multilingual repertoires. ELDIA has made an immense contribution to initiate a shift in thinking and has created a space for researchers and stakeholders to start thinking about new strategies for accommodating multilingualism and language diversity in speaker communities, up to the large community represented by the European Union. Through ELDIA I have learnt that language is not a fixed concept, that it is not possible to categorize  language use as right or wrong and that we do perform as well as we might believe in management linguistic diversity. There is a tremendous potential to revitalize minority languages for the benefit of individual multilingualism and societal language diversity. Language use is not exclusive, neither is it a competition, a notion that can also be found in the recent thematic commentary on language adopted by the Advisory Committee to the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on National Minorities which is well worth reading and can be found at

See also:

WPELD 9 STEPHAN, Sarah. 2012. Legal and Institutional Framework Analysis: Estonian in Germany

WPELD 10 GRANS, Lisa. 2012. Legal and Institutional Framework Analysis: Karelian and Estonian in Finland

All ELDIA publications can be found online at www.eldia-project.org/index.php/news-events-ac/working-papers.

Finnäs, Fjalar, Finlandssvenskarna 2009, En statisisk rapport, Svenska Finlands Folktinget, Helsinki 2010, pp. 23 ff, available online at

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Bloggen skrivs av Fredsinstitutets nuvarande eller tidigare personal, gästforskare och styrelseledamöter eller av inbjudna gästskribenter. Åsikterna är författarens egna.

The blog pieces are written by the peace institute's present or former staff, guest researchers, board members or invited guest writers. The opinions are the author's own.