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Introducing the LAIF project: Language Awareness and Ideologies in Finland

Updated: Dec 17, 2022

with generous funding from the Kone Foundation

A lot of people care a lot about language. English speakers often care about how different people use English, and many (not me) are concerned about whether or not people use English the “right” way. (I actually wrote a book on this topic back in 2019, see link here.) As native speakers of English, one thing we tend to not worry about is that our language, English, is going to go away any time soon. Speakers of other languages do worry about this, however, and in fact they worry about it a lot. One of the biggest worries they have about their language is that, because so many people speak English so much of the time, eventually English will edge out their own beautiful and cherished language altogether. Here in Finland, there is a lot of concern over the future of Finnish and how it relates specifically to English.

This is a complex issue involving a much larger matrix of concerns. Concerns about language and how it is changing normally relate to social changes, such as technological advances, migration, and an ageing population. That is, what we think of as language-related challenges are actually linked in a very real way to other challenges we are facing as a society. What’s more is that concerns about these kinds of issues can often lead to real-life consequences, depending on the kinds of attitudes there are about certain speakers and the way they use language. This is known as language discrimination. Given the fact that these types of issues are so widespread in society, it is unfortunate that relatively little is known about language-related ideologies, language discrimination, and the social consequences.

The LAIF project, a research project generously funded by the Kone Foundation in its 2022 round of funding, seeks to explore such issues in the context of Finland. The project’s main aim is to explore language-related ideologies and attitudes in contemporary Finland, as well as to raise awareness about language equality and justice. The LAIF project joins a growing body of work which has been described as Fourth Wave Sociolinguistics (Baugh 2018, Charity Hudley et al 2020), meaning that, like other fields of study that have in recent years sought to redress social injustices and inequalities, we conduct our research with an explicit aim of linguistic activism. Specifically, the project has the following aims:

  1. To critically and reliably assess the contemporary language scenario in Finland, with findings supplied through anonymous, quantitative survey data.

  2. To assess in a just and responsible manner the linguistic realities for different subgroups in the Finnish population, drawing from ethnographic, citizen science and critical discourse analysis methods.

  3. To widely disperse the project’s outcomes and revelations through a targeted, long-term series of public engagements, collaboration with stakeholders, and media presence.

There are four main work packages in the project: 1) language attitudes, in which we investigate the relationship of English and Finnish in today’s Finland 2) migrant languages, especially the language of highly-skilled migrant women 3) language ideologies, in which we investigate power structures within the languages of Finland and 4) language awareness, which entails making our findings about language available in various platforms for the general public.

The three-year project, which will kick off in the spring of 2023, involves a team of four different researchers and a communications specialist. We also have an advisory board comprising language and media specialists. During the first months of the project, we will establish an external stakeholder board. (If you are interested, or if you know someone who is interested in being on our board, please be in touch with me, Elizabeth Peterson, the principal investigator.)

The initial phase of our project will be to offer an updated account of the relationship of Finnish and English in Finland today, expanding on a pivotal national survey conducted by Leppänen et al nearly 20 years ago. Our survey will include some questions similar to those from 20 years ago, mostly those relating to attitudes toward the learning of English, everyday contact with English, attitudes toward English and language mixing, as well as predictions about the future of English in Finland. The survey will also feature some questions assessing the relationship between Swedish, Finnish and English.

The project begins by concentrating mostly on the relationship between Finnish and English, but we aim to expand to other languages of Finland, namely Swedish and Sámi, within three years’ time. The long-term aim is to establish a language awareness body that complements the fine work of existing organizations and groups in Finland, for example KOTUS (the Institute for the Languages of Finland), and to instigate collaboration across the Nordic countries.

The main mission of the Kone Foundation for the years 2021–2025, as stated on their website, is to “make the world a better place by creating the conditions for free and multi-voiced art and research.” When the LAIF team combined our expertise into the writing of the proposal for our project, we were confident that our aims complemented those of the Kone Foundation. We want to make the world a better place, too, through language and a plurality of co-existing voices. We could not be happier that the Kone Foundation has supported our vision, seeing the promise in our project. We are very grateful to the Kone Foundation for believing in our project and for sharing our aims.

The acronym for our project, LAIF, which stands for Language Awareness and Ideologies in Finland, is actually a Finnish word borrowed from English, pronounced like the word “life” and sharing the same meaning. (And yes, Finnish readers, you will recognize a nod to our own beloved anti-hero, Matti Nykänen, and his famous expression “Elämä on laiffii.”) For us, it is no overstatement that well-being in life is intimately connected to the well-being and security of our languages, which in turn relates to larger social issues.

Baugh, J. (2018). Linguistics in pursuit of justice. Cambridge University Press.

Charity Hudley, A., Mallinson, C. and Bucholtz, M. (2020). Toward Racial Justice in Linguistics: Interdisciplinary Insights into Theorizing Race in the Discipline and Diversifying the Profession. Language 96: 4

Leppänen, S., Pitkänen-Huhta, A. Nikula, T., et al. (2011). National Survey on the English Language in Finland: Uses, meanings and attitudes. Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English. Helsinki: Research Unit for Variation, Contacts, and Change in English.

Peterson, E. (2019). Making sense of “bad English”: An introduction to language attitudes and ideologies. London & New York: Routledge.

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