Saamen kielet elävät keskellä revitalisaatioprosessia. Tässä prosessissa koulun rooli on erittäin tärkeä. Saamelaisnuoria koskeva tutkimus osoittaa, että suomalainen koulusysteemi epäonnistuu nuorten puhujien saamen kielen taidon ja käytön edistämisessä. Erityisesti tämä käy ilmi Tanan ja Utsjoen nuorten kielitaitoa ja kielenkäyttöä koskevassa vertailevassa tutkimuksessa. Kaksikielisyyttä tukevien vahvojen mallien ja metodien puutteesta johtuen koulussa eivät saavuta toiminnallista kaksikielisyyttä myöskään ne lapset, jotka aloittavat koulun enemmistökielisinä. Meneillään olevat makrotason prosessit eivät korjaa saamen kielten revitalisaation kannalta epäsuotuisia käytänteitä, koska kaikki tärkeimmät päätökset jätetään kuntien tehtäväksi. Saamelaislasten kielellisiä oikeuksia ei oteta riittävästi huomioon kielenelvytyksessä.


In March 2013 I attended a seminar in Helsinki on bilingual schools in Finland arranged by the think tank Magma1 in cooperation with the Ovttas –project2 in Tana and Utsjoki. Throughout the winter, there had been a lively and interesting discussion in Finland about whether bilingual Finnish and Swedish schools should be established, and if this would benefit both the Swedish and Finnish speaking children and make both groups bilingual in each other’s languages.

Many distinguished researchers and practiconers in the field of bilingual education and socio- linguistics made presentations. The seminar was summed up in a panel discussion between professor Ante Aikio from the University of Oulu, professor Leena Huss from the University of Uppsala, Minister of Environment Ville Niinistö and Mikaela Nylander, a MP and member of the Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee.

The panel was in agreement on one question: That the Swedish medium schools in Finland should be maintained and not converted into bilingual schools. But on the other hand, it should be possible to adopt models and methodologies for bilingual education that create high-level bilingualism among the students, and these should be implemented in elementary schools in Finland. These schools should be voluntary for both speakers of the minority language, Swedish, and the majority language, Finnish, and for bilingual children.

I had been asked to give a presentation about how the bilingual education system affects the language skills of Sámi children and youth in Utsjoki. My advice to the audience was that if bilingual schools in Finland are wanted, they should not follow the Utsjoki-model for bilingual education because this model doesn’t have high-level bilingualism as outcome. In fact, we are raising a new generation of Sámi speakers who are more fluent in Finnish than in the minority language North-Sámi. Another unfortunate outcome of the Utsjoki model is that the monolingual Finnish children don’t learn to speak Sámi at school.

In this article, I will focus on a taboo issue in Sámi language revitalization: the Finnish school system and its method of supporting Sámi languages. My objection to the school system are exactly the two facts mentioned above: The school system fails in developing high-level bilingualism among the mother tongue speakers of Sámi because most of them end up more fluent in Finnish than Sámi, and the non-Sámi speakers do not become functionally bilingual as a result of teaching in schools. This must be viewed as a defeat for the Finnish schools, and I would also label it as an embarrassment, given that Finnish schools are widely considered to be among the best in the world. Nonetheless, in this instance, the school system ends up as an obstacle, rather than a support, in the revitalization process of Sámi languages.

PhD research on the topic

My interest in this topic – mono- vs. bilingual schools – results from the work I have done at the Sámi University College in Kautokeino Norway. Between 2008 and 2011, I was engaged in a sociolinguistic project “Transmitting of Sámi languages in some local context” as a PhD student. My dissertation3 is a study of ethnolinguistic vitality of North-Sámi Language in two neighboring municipalities in the beginning of the 21st century. The two neighboring municipalities are Tana/Deatnu and Utsjoki/Ohcejohka in the Tana/Deanu/Teno Valley. The former is situated on the Norwegian side of the border, the latter on the Finnish side. Bilingual schools are also the most common solution for the teaching of Sámi speaking students in Norway. But in my research area in Norway, there are two monolingual Sámi schools Sirpmá skuvla and Deanu Sámeskuvla, both for grade 1-10, and at which all students are Sámi speakers and the language of administration and education is Sámi. There are also three elementary schools in the municipality with only Norwegian as the language of instruction and administration.

Because of these differences in school systems between my two research municipalities, it is possible to compare and contrast the outcome of language skills and language use between students enrolled in monolingual Sámi schools, bilingual Finnish/Sámi schools and Norwegian schools. In this article I will first focus on distribution between fluent and less fluent speakers of Sámi, the subjects’ use of Sámi with friends at school, outside of school, and with siblings. Secondly, I will focus on the Finnish and Norwegian speaking children’s opportunity to learn Sámi. I work largely with empirical data stemming from field work carried out for my PhD dissertation to show the problems the Finnish school system presently creates for Sámi language revitalization. I will also refer to two small investigation projects about use of Sámi Language in Utsjoki carried out by Ovttas and Sámi Siida4 and the Sámi parliament5. These two documents help to create deeper understanding of the ethnolinguistic vitality of North Sámi Language in the Utsjoki municipality. Finally, I will analyze the following three documents to show if there is any progress towards a school system that benefits Sámi language revitalization in a more optimal way than currently exists: The Sámi parliament’s statement of demand for a new national core curriculum for basic education, The Education and Culture Ministry’s program for revitalization of Sámi languages, and finally, the new core curriculum for basic education6. These documents are used to investigate if there are efforts to revitalize Sámi languages in Finland in an effective way.

Language shift and revitalization in the field area

As illustrated on the map below, Utsjoki is the northernmost municipality in Finland. On the Norwegian side north of Utsjoki are the municipalities Tana and Karasjok. Utsjoki had 1 300 inhabitants and both Tana and Karasjok had a little less than 3000 inhabitants during the years my study was carried out. In all these municipalities, indigenous Sámi people are in majority, but due to a language shift which started mainly in the 1960’s, many Sámi don’t speak their native language, only Norwegian or Finnish. This language shift was especially visible in the 1970’s and 80’s, at the same time as Sámi language was introduced in elementary school in both municipalities both as a subject and as language of instruction.7


Map 1: The field area. Ohcejohka/Utsjoki municipality
in Finland and Deatnu/Tana municipality in Norway.
Illustration: Studio Borga

This sounds like a contradiction, and it is indeed a contradiction. The language became active in many new domains in the 1970’s and 80’s, one of which was elementary schools. However, the status of the language wasn’t elevated overnight. Many views on the language were reported at this time, and the use of Sámi language in families, at home, in school, in kindergarten, church and other official arenas was debated actively in these municipalities both during the 1970’s and 80’s and beyond. It was simultaneously both strongly supported and strongly opposed both by Sámi, Finnish and Norwegian people. Sometimes the struggle is referred to as the ‘Language War’ by local minority language advocates. In many ways they won the war, as new language policy was slowly implemented in the local communities, leading to the fact that Sámi language became the language of instruction in elementary school, among many other positive changes regarding to the status of Sámi language. But the intergenerational language transmission from parents to children didn’t immediately increase and the language shift continued8. I will use the words of the Estonian linguist, professor Martin Ehala, to explain this often underestimated role of attitudes on ethnolinguistic vitality for minority language.

… all the linguistic infrastructure, institution, etc., may not guarantee the continuity of a speech community, if its members have acquired the idea that their language has become an obstacle in the mobile and competitive environment.9

Many people had acquired the idea that Sámi language was an obstacle in the mobile and competitive environment, and the opponents to Sámi language had been able to keep the language out of school for 20 years. It was legal to use Sámi language in school since 1957 in Finland and 1959 in Norway, but it was nearly 20 years before it was introduced as the language of instruction due to this local resistance in both Tana and Utsjoki.10 But once initiated, the introduction of Sámi language in the classrooms was a very clear revitalization effort, and it meant a lot for the parents who spoke Sámi to their children and for their children as well.11

Still, there are good reasons to ask if the school system of today is sufficient for the actual situation today or if changes are needed. It definitely seems so. Due to the constant resistance against changes within the school system, necessary models for a Sámi school which benefits both children with Sámi as their first language and non-Sámi speaking children have never been implemented. In fact, such strong models for bilingual education have yet to even be planned for Sámi children in Finland.

The field area models for bilingual school

A good example from Finland which benefits the minority language children is the separate school system for Swedish and Finnish speaking children. It’s established by law that Finnish and Swedish speaking children shall be taught in their own language in separate schools12. A separate school system for Sámi and Finnish speaking children has yet to be considered for the education of Sámi children in Finland.

The model chosen in Utsjoki is, as elsewhere in the Sámi home area, that Sámi and Finnish speakers are taught in the same Finnish medium schools. Sámi and Finnish language education is carried out in separate classes. The education is mostly in Sámi for the Sámi speakers, but the school environment stays Finnish. The schools don’t create a Sami language arena outside of the classroom for the Sámi speaking children. This school system was established in Utsjoki during the 1970s and 80s and remains exactly the same today. I have come to refer to it as “The Utsjoki model of a bilingual Finnish/Sámi school”. Education is entirely in Sámi at preschool and primary school (classes 1-6). At lower secondary school, classes 7-9, the education is mostly in Sámi but some subjects are taught in Finnish. The municipality of Utsjoki also has an upper secondary school, Utsjoen Saamelaislukio. Despite the name, all education in this school is in Finnish except the language subjects of Sámi and Swedish, and handicraft instruction for Sámi speakers. I will in the following show how this school environment impacts Sámi speaking children and how this affects their language use both in and outside school. These results will be compared with the results from the neighboring municipality, Tana, where a different school system exists.

The education for the Sámi speakers is only one side of the revitalization process. In a language revitalization process, it is also crucial to keep an eye on the other part of the population, the non-speakers. In this case they consist both of children belonging to the ethnic Sámi group and also non-Sámis. The question is, what does the Utsjoki model offer to children that don’t speak the minority language Sámi? In my research on those children’s identity, a majority of the Finnish speakers do in fact consider themselves to be Sámi. These children are in Finnish classes where they might read Sámi as a foreign language 1-2 hours a week. There is no immersion education in Sámi. It’s not obligatory to learn Sámi and most children from the Finnish classes are not able to speak Sámi when they leave elementary school. The Sámi and Finnish classes are together at breaks and they speak mostly Finnish, and seldom Sámi, in the school yard. This is unfortunate for the Sámi speakers but it also leaves the Finnish speakers with-out an informal arena of Sámi language learning.

When it comes to the staff at school there are also problems. About 50 % of the teachers are not able to speak Sámi and in two of three schools in the municipality the vice rector (apulaisjohtaja) speaks only Finnish as does the rector of the upper secondary school Utsjoen saamelaislukio. Because of the staff’s lack of Sámi language skills, school openings and common activities are mostly in Finnish. Again, this is unfortunate for the Sámi speakers, but also for the non-Sámi speakers that loose another arena of language learning.
In Tana, on the Norwegian side, the municipality changed the school system in the beginning of the 1990s. They then had had three bilingual schools and two schools with Norwegian as the only language of instruction. This changed into a monolingual school system with two Sámi medium schools – Sirpmá skuvla and Deanu sámeskuvla – with the entire education in Sámi, and three schools – Seida, Boftsa and Austertana – with education in Norwegian. These differences in school systems – bilingual schools in Utsjoki and monolingual Sámi schools in Tana – presented the opportunity to conduct research on the effects of mono and bilingual schools on Sámi speaking children.

Children and youths skills and use of Sámi

I used questionnaires to collect information about 10–16 years old students’ language skills, language use, linguistic history, linguistic prejudices and ethnic identities. In total, 193 students or 71 percent of the students from the municipalities’ schools took part in the research. 95 of the students are Sámi speakers. 61 are from Tana and 34 from Utsjoki.13

I will use the term fluent speakers of Sámi to identify those speakers who speak Sámi better than the national language or two languages equally well, and the term less fluent speakers of Sámi for those speakers who speak the national language, Finnish or Norwegian, better than Sámi.


Table 1: Distribution between fluent and less fluent speakers of Sámi language in Tana and Utsjoki in percentages.

There is a clear difference between the municipalities in the distribution into fluent and less fluent speakers. 57 % of the speakers in Tana are fluent speakers 43 % are less fluent speakers. In Utsjoki 32 % of the speakers are fluent speakers whereas 68 % are less fluent speakers. I have cross -checked for every possible explanation to figure out why more children and youth in Tana are fluent speakers of Sámi than children and youth in Utsjoki. The investigated factors are listed below with the result:

  • Language use in kindergarten and language of education. I didn’t find any significant differences between Tana and Utsjoki.
    When did the children learn to speak Sámi? I didn’t find any significant differences.
  • Language use with parents, grandparents, relatives and other adults. I didn’t find any significant differences. The children do mostly speak Sámi with older people.
  • Language use in extracurricular activities. I didn’t find any significant differences. Arranged extracurricular activities are mostly in Finnish or Norwegian.
  • Consumption of Sámi language media. There is a small difference between the municipalities. The children in Tana use Sámi language media slightly more than children in Utsjoki. This is likely because Sámi language media (newspapers, radio and television) are larger and more prevalent in Norway than in Finland.

In the end I was left with only one possible explanation for the difference in distribution between fluent and less fluent speakers in these two municipalities: the school systems and the effect of bilingual schools versus monolingual Sámi medium schools.

These findings for the school systems are significant. Children from bilingual schools are more seldom fluent speakers of Sámi than children from monolingual schools. Children from the bilingual schools speak less Sámi with other children both at school at outside school than children from monolingual schools. Children from bilingual schools transfer their language habits from school to the home and speak less Sámi with their siblings than children from monolingual schools. I will in the following show some of the significant results.


Table 2: Fluent speakers’ of Sámi and their language use with friends at school

91 % of the fluent speakers in Tana use mainly Sámi as the language of communication with friends at school. 36 % of the fluent speakers in Utsjoki use mainly Sámi as the language of communication with friends at school and 64 % use Finnish as language of communication with friends at school.


Table 3: Less fluent speakers’ of Sámi and their language use with friends at school.

48 % of the less fluent speakers in Tana use mainly Sámi as the language of communication with friends at school. 26 % of the less fluent speakers in Utsjoki use mainly Sámi as the language of communication with friends at school and 74 % use Finnish as language of communication with friends at school.


Table 4: Fluent speakers of Sámi and their language use with friends outside school.

91 % of the fluent speakers in Tana use mainly Sámi as the language of communication with friends outside school. 27 % of the fluent speakers in Utsjoki use mainly Sámi as the language of communication with friends outside school and 73 % use Finnish as language of communication with friends outside school.


Table 5: Fluent speakers Sámi language use with siblings.

82 % of the fluent speakers in Tana use mainly Sámi as the language of communication with their siblings. 50 % of the fluent speakers in Utsjoki use mainly Sámi as the language of communication with their siblings and 50 % use Finnish as language of communication with siblings.


Table 6: Less fluent speakers Sámi language use with siblings.

63 % of the less fluent speakers in Tana use mainly Sámi as the language of communication with their sibling. 39 % of the less fluent speakers in Utsjoki use mainly Sámi as the language of communication with their siblings and 61 % use Finnish as language of communication with their siblings.

Analysis of results

The tendencies for Utsjoki documented in my dissertation are not unexpected. Similar language habits were reported from this municipality buy Aikio and Lindgren in 197014, by Guttorm15, Alaraudanjoki and Kurki-Joensuu in 1988 and 200116, and in two more recent reports from the beginning of the 21st century17. Taipale interviewed 11 youths from the ages 13-17 in 2010. They were all able to speak Sámi and for most of the youths Sámi was the primary language with their grandparents, with one of their parents and with other relatives. But within their own age group, the use of Sámi was limited.

Only one spoke always Sámi with his siblings, three spoke mostly Finnish but also Sámi and seven always Finnish with their siblings. Outside the classroom Finnish was the dominant language of communication with other students. One spoke Sámi and Finnish equally with friends at school, one spoke mostly Finnish but also Sámi and nine always spoke Finnish. Most of the leisure activities for youths were arranged in Finnish and all the youths spoke only Finnish while taking part in these activities. The only exceptions were when they took part in activities in Norway or in the local Sámi associations’ activities. Then nearly all of them spoke only, or mostly, Sámi18. The same tendency is reported by parents in Länsman and Tervaniemi19. The children’s use of Finnish increases at the start at school despite the fact that the education is in Sámi. They also begin to speak Finnish with other Sámi speakers of their own age.

One explanation for the differences between the municipalities could be that both parents in Utsjoki are seldom Sámi speakers. But this is not right. Both parents are a little more often Sámi speakers in Utsjoki than in Tana. Still, their children are more seldom fluent speakers of Sámi.


Table 7: Two Sámi speaking parents and children’s language skills

If both parents are speakers of Sámi 73 % of the children in Tana are fluent speakers and 27 % are less fluent speakers. In Utsjoki 33 % are fluent speakers, 58 % are less fluent speakers and 9 % are not speakers of Sámi. This result is disturbing. Even if the parents are speakers and speak the language to the children in Utsjoki, only one third of them are fluent speakers of their parents’ language. In Tana, three quarters of the children are fluent speakers in the same situation.

I also interviewed 12 families with qualitative research interview methods. A central question was how parents evaluate the vitality of Sámi language and how well they think the new Sámi policy has been implemented in their home community. When it comes to the role of the school there is a clear difference between the municipalities. The parents in Deatnu/Tana municipality consider the school to play a significant role in the promotion of Sámi language. In Ohcejohka/Utsjoki most of the parents consider the school as an obstacle to the children’s socialization as Sámi speakers.

Macro level differences

In my PhD study I focus on how the macro level affects the municipalities and individual people. Mostly the macro level situation is very similar in Norway and Finland when it comes to policy towards Sámi and Sámi speakers. But there are indeed also two differences on the macro level that might explain some of the differences between young speakers of Sámi in these two municipalities.

Firstly, the Norwegian educational act20 gives the Sámi speakers legal right to have their primary education and lower secondary education with Sámi as the language of instruction. The Finnish education act21 on the other hand, gives Sámi speaking children the right to have the main part of the education in Sámi; therefore it’s legal to have 49 % of the education in Finnish for Sámi speaking children. Finnish law on education also distinguishes between Sámi speaking students on one hand and Finnish and Swedish speaking students on the other hand. The same situation, if a Finnish speaking or a Swedish speaking child were to be forced to learn through the other national language in Finland, this would be a violation of those students’ linguistic rights22.

Secondly Utsjoki uses the Finnish national core curriculum as the basis for its education, whereas Tana use a national Sámi curriculum. The difference between these curricula can be visualized with two quotes from the principal parts of the curricula: Teaching is based on Finnish culture that has developed in interaction with the Original, the Nordic and the European culture.23 Whereas the Sámi curriculum states that: The education shall have such a content and quality that… ()… it motivates children and youth to become active and creative members of the Sámi and the Norwegian society24.

An ideal approach

In Finland we are raising a new generation of Sámi speakers that speak Finnish better than Sámi. We can expect that the language shift continues because most of the young speakers are not used to speak Sámi with people on their own age. At the seminar on bilingual schools mentioned at the start of this article, that fact caused me to make the statement that if one wants bilingual schools in Finland, the Utsjoki-model should not be followed. The minority language speakers suffer in such schools and the minority language suffer.

If we want to safeguard Sámi language for the future we need a different type of school. This is a difficult task within the limits of the Finnish school system as it is expressed in the national curriculum25 and the educational act26. I will later point to some problems for revitalization which appear according to the old and new core curricula for basic education27 and the educational act. But first, I’ll share some thoughts about how the school system should function in order to best safeguard Sámi languages and promote revitalization of these languages.

The most important task for a Sámi medium school should be to safeguard the language of the mother tongue speaking children of Sámi languages even if the students are few in numbers, and along with them, those children who have learned Sámi in kindergarten and in their home environment before attending school. In the Sámi administrative area, they should be offered education through the medium of Sámi language, in Sámi medium schools that are physically separate from the Finnish schools. It should also be possible to establish such schools in cities south of the administrative area where a significant number of Sámis are living – areas such as Rovaniemi, Oulu and Helsinki. In separate Sámi medium schools, staff are able to ensure that school is a conducive Sámi language environment for those children that speak Sámi. A special local curriculum should be developed for this education and students should be able to follow this education from preschool until grade nine, with the possibility to also have all or part of the upper secondary education with Sámi as the language of instruction. These schools might share administration and school yards, with the next task benefitting revitalization most profoundly, to be the establishment of Sámi Immersion schools for Sámi and children of other origin that aren’t able to speak Sámi at home or in society, and before they begin their educations.

Non-Sámi speakers should be offered the possibility to attend Sámi immersion schools where Sámi is the main language of instruction from preschool to grade nine, with the possibility to also have all or part of the upper secondary education with Sámi as their language of instruction. These schools should also have bilingual staff specially trained in immersion education and the education should follow a special localized curriculum made for this type of education. As for the Sámi medium schools for mother tongue speakers of Sámi, such immersion schools should be established in all municipalities in the Sámi home area and in areas with many Sámis living outside the Sámi home area.

Children who aren’t attending Sámi medium schools or immersion classes should have the opportunity to learn Sámi language in the municipality’s Finnish school regardless of where they live in Finland. In the Sámi home area the municipalities should be able to decide whether Sámi language should be a compulsory subject for other students in the Finnish schools from preschool to upper secondary education. This teaching must have a scope that really enables students to become functionally bilingual during primary school. These are descriptions of two ideal and strong models of bilingual education that would safeguard and revitalize Sámi language within the Finnish school system.

Obstacles for an ideal solution

Unfortunately, the most important players on the field aren’t promoting most of these ideas – or at least they haven’t shown any interest in making the possibilities into legal rights for the children. I have examined the possibilities of a new Sámi school system with respect to the Finnish law of education, the new core curriculum of basic education which will come into force in 2016, the Finnish Sámi parliament’s comments on the draft for this new core curriculum28, and the revitalization program for Sámi languages29.

The Sami parliament maintains the status quo, which is that basic education for Sámi speaking children is arranged in the same schools as Finnish language education in the Sámi home area.30 They do not suggest separate Finnish and Sámi medium schools. Such an opportunity is not mentioned in the new core curriculum or the language revitalization program. It would not be illegal for a municipality to organize its Sámi language education in separate schools, but nobody has yet done so, and it isn’t a linguistic right for Sámi speaking children according to the law.

When it comes to the use of Sámi through elementary school, there are problems that no one has pointed to formally and therefore no interest of change is visible. According to the law on education31: the main part of education shall be in Sámi for Sámi speaking children. Main part has in some municipalities been interpreted as 51 percent even for 1st graders. I have not found any indication that any of the main players want to change this law for the better for Sámi speaking children in the above mentioned documents. The lack of these legal linguistic rights makes it difficult to develop a Sámi medium school and leaves an important level of decision to the local democracy in the municipalities.

Sámi immersion classes

Both the Sámi parliament and the Revitalization program point out the need for Sámi immersion classes at school32. Neither discusses the possibility of separating these classes from the Finnish school to create a positive linguistic environment for the children outside the classroom. Nevertheless the possibility to establish immersion classes for languages other than Finnish or Swedish was already identified in the National core curriculum of 200433. The new curriculum, which will be put into use in 2016, also makes it clear that it is possible to establish Sámi language immersion classes34. But the establishment of a Sámi medium school and full use of Sámi as the language of instruction isn’t mentioned as a linguistic right for Sámi children. Instead, establishment of immersion classes is left to the local democracy in the municipalities which may or may not decide whether they should establish immersion classes.

Additionally, the new core curriculum makes it impossible to carry out Sámi immersion classes that model the proven success of other full immersion schools for Indigenous peoples. The Finnish model for “full” immersion education consists of at least 50 percent use of the minority language through preschool and grade 1-9, and is divided in such a way that close to 100 percent of preschool is in the target language, 90 percent in grade 1-2, 70 percent in grade 3-4 and 50 percent in grade 5-9.35 In other words, the better the children learn the target language, the less the target language shall be used as language of instruction at school.

Other examples are instructive. For example, the indigenous language immersion model developed in Aotearoa/New Zealand for indigenous Māori language demands more use of the target language, as language of instruction for all subjects other than English for grades 1 – 12. This model is used successfully by many other Indigenous peoples today, such as for the indigenous Hawaiian language in Hawai’ where Hawai’ian language is used 100 percent in the immersion education. The Finnish system also breaks with the model of language immersion developed in Wales for Cymru, where students use Cymru at least 50 percent in the first years of education and increase the use to nearly 100 percent in the higher classes.36 According to emeritus professor Christer Lauren37 at the University of Vasa, the Swedish immersion education in Finland has adopted the concept of immersion education from French immersion for English speaking children in Canada. In both Canada and Finland, children in immersion education do not belong to the target language ethnic group and they learn another high status language – whereas children in Sámi immersion classes will most likely be ethnic Sámis and the target language will be a low status and threatened indigenous language. A method used for immersion education for Finnish and Canadian children might not be appropriate for Sámi children. Wherefore examples of good practice should be investigated in other language societies.

Language education outside the Sámi administrative area

The revitalization program for Sámi language emphasizes the need for Sámi language education in the primary education outside the Sámi home area as there is no legal right for such education today. This education is also mentioned in a special chapter in the new curriculum38. Interestingly enough, there are two limitations to the legal right for this education. The child must have Sámi as mother tongue or Sámi must be the family language39. In the Revitalization program for Sámi languages this is also suggested to be a legal right only if: vähintään kahden oppilaan huoltajat sitä pyytävät ja saame on yksi näiden oppilaiden perheiden kielistä40.41

Such a formulation in the old Swedish law on mother tongue education42 was interpreted very strictly by school authorities and pupils were denied education in Sámi if they or at least one of their parent couldn’t prove skills of Sámi.43 There is a very recent regulation that has deleted the requirement of parents (or the child) knowing the language, or using it at home: En elev som tillhör någon av de nationella minoriteterna ska erbjudas modersmålsundervisning i elevens nationella minoritetsspråk44. The legal problem for Sámi as a mother tongue is by this act probably solved in Sweden, but not in Finland.

I would like to add that my research shows very clearly that Finnish speaking children don’t become even close to functionally bilingual in Sámi language during elementary school years, even if they follow the schools’ Sámi ’as a foreign language’ language program. I attribute this to the lack of time for education. There are both too few hours of education and too little exposure to Sámi language outside the classroom, both in the school environment and in the Sámi villages. The new curriculum doesn’t change this picture and we can’t expect any progress in this field as a result.


The Finnish school system is a taboo issue in Sámi language revitalization. The school system creates a new generation of Sámi speakers who are more fluent in Finnish than in Sámi languages because the schools function as Finnish language supports outside the classrooms. On the other hand, Finnish schools don’t employ strong models for bilingual education to teach Sámi to the non-Sámi speakers, either. As a result, those students don’t become functionally bilingual at elementary school.

Solutions might be found on the macro level by making a Sámi medium school a linguistic right for Sámi speaking children and more effective models of bilingual education a linguistic right for other Sámi children. Presently, such models are not promoted either by Finnish authorities or the Sámi parliament.

The solution has been and is still left to the local democracy in the municipalities that own the schools. According to the law it’s not necessary to separate Finnish and Sámi medium schools, it’s not necessary to establish Sámi immersion classes, and it’s very difficult for a municipality to make Sámi a compulsory subject in elementary school. All of these efforts are possible, but they are left to the local democracy and might only be carried out by decisions in the municipality’s political bodies. There is also the danger that such a decision may also be reconsidered or changed by the same political bodies for economic or political reasons. Therefore, we cannot reasonably expect much progress for Sámi language revitalization in Finnish schools in the future.


  • Aikio, Marjut, & Anna-Riitta Lindgren (1973) Kieliraportit. Saamelaiskomitea. Vol. 46, Saamelaiskomitean mietintö : liite: tutkimusraportit. Helsinki: Valtioneuvosto. Valtion painatuskeskus.
  • Aikio-Puoskari, Ulla (2001) Saamen kielen ja saamenkielinen opetus Pohjoismaissa : tutkimus saamelaisten kielellisistä ihmisoikeuksista Pohjoismaiden kouluissa. Rovaniemi: Lapin yliopisto.
  • Alaraudanjoki, Arja, & Katariina Kurki-Joensuu (2002) Saamea vai suomea : Utsjoen saamelaisten oppilaiden kielenkäyttö vuosina 1988 ja 2001. Rovaniemi: Lapin Yliopisto.
  • Benton, Richard, & Nena Eslao Benton (2001) ”RLS in Aotearoa/New Zealand 1989-1999.” In Can threatened languages be saved?: reversing language shift, revisited : a 21st century perspective, doaim. Joshua A. Fishman, 423–450. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • County of Stockholm and Swedish Sámi Parliament 2014: Nationella minoriteter : Rapport om tillämpningen av lagen om nationella minoriteter och minoritetsspråk år 2013. Stockholm: Länsstyrelsen. Accessed on 13 November 2015. Online: http://www.lansstyrelsen.se/stockholm/SiteCollectionDocuments/Sv/publikationer/2014/nationella-minoriteter-rapport-om-tillampningen-av-lagen-2013.pdf
  • Davies, Emyr (1996) ”Muhtun bealit giellaoahpaheamis: go geahččá walesalaččaid bealis.” Duostta hupmat: Gulahallanvuohki sámegieloahpahusas, doaim, Jon Todal & Martin Pope, 11–47. Guovdageaidnu: Sámi oahpahusráđđi.
  • Finnish Education and Culture Ministry (2012) Toimenpideohjelma saamen kielen elvyttämiseksi. Opetus- ja kulttuuriministeriön työryhmämuistioita ja selvityksiä 2012:7. Helsinki, Education and Culture Ministry 2012.
  • Ehala, Martin (2009) ”An evaluation matrix for ethno-linguistic vitality.” Rights, Promotion and Integration Issues for Minority Languages in Europe, doaim. Susanna Pertot, Tom Priestly & Colin Williams, 123–137. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd.
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  • Guttorm, Seija (1987) Dutkanraporta sámemánáid guovttegielalasvuoða birra ohcejoga vuolledásis (1–6 L K), Dieðut. Guovdageaidnu: Sámi instituhtta.
  • Garcia, Ofelia (2009) Bilingual Education in the 21st century : A global perspectice. West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing.
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  1. Magma is a Finnish think tank that was started in 2008. It supports liberal values and is independent of party politics. (Magma 2015). 

  2. The Ovttas-project was a project between the municipalities in the Tana valley on Sámi language, school and kindergarten cooperation. (Hirvasvuopio-Laiti & Hirvonen 2011: 1). 

  3. Rasmussen 2013. 

  4. Taipale 2012. 

  5. Länsman & Tervaniemi 2012. 

  6. Sámi parliament 2012; 2014; Education and Culture Ministry 2012, Finnish national board of education 2014. 

  7. Rasmussen 2013: 107-9. 

  8. Rasmussen 2013: 108-10. 

  9. Ehala 1999: 128. 

  10. Rasmussen 2013: 89-90; Aarseth 2006:32; Aikio-Puoskari 2001: 185-90. 

  11. Guttorm 1987; Rasmussen 2013: chapter 6. 

  12. Perusopetuslaki 1999/1288 § 10. 

  13. Rasmussen 2013: 59-62; 124. 

  14. Aikio & Lindgren 1973. 

  15. 1987. 

  16. Alaraudanjoki & Kurki-Joensuu 2002. 

  17. Taipale 2012; Länsman & Tervaniemi 2012. 

  18. Taipale 2012. 

  19. 2012: 15. 

  20. Lov om grunnskolen og den vidaregåande opplæringa 1998: 61. 

  21. Perusopetuslaki 628/1998. 

  22. Perusopetuslaki 1999/1288 § 10. 

  23. Finnish national board of education 2004:12. 

  24. Sámi oahpahusráđđi 1999. Álggahus. 

  25. Finnish national board of education 2004:12. 

  26. Perusopetuslaki 628/1998. 

  27. Finnish national board of education 2004; 2014. 

  28. Sámi parliament 2012; 2014. 

  29. Finnish Education and Culture Ministry 2012. 

  30. Sámi Parliament 2012; 2014. 

  31. Perusopetuslaki 628/1998 § 6-2. 

  32. Sámi parliament 2012; 2014; Education and Culture Ministry 2012: 59. 

  33. Finnish national board of education 2004: 270-273. 

  34. Finnish national board of education 2014: 91. 

  35. Finnish national board of education 2014: 94. 

  36. Benton & Benton. 2001: 429-434; Garcia 2009: 247-8; 294; Davies 1996: 11-43; Todal 1996: 111; Tsunoda 2005: 202-203. 

  37. 2006: 53-60. 

  38. Finnish national board of education 2014: 519-528. 

  39. Finnish national board of education 2014: 519. 

  40. If the parents of two students demand it and Sámi is a family language for these students. 

  41. Education and Culture Ministry 2012: 58. 

  42. Skollag 2010:800. Chapter 10. § 7. 

  43. County of Stockholm and Swedish Sámi Parliament 2014: 33, 41; Swedish Sámi Parliament 2011: 11; Swedish Sámi Radio 2012; 2014. 

  44. A student belonging to any of the national minorities shall be offered education in her/his national minority language.