The individuals' linguistic rights are secured in section 17 of the Constitution of Finland. According to the Constitution, an individual has the right to use either of the national languages, Finnish or Swedish, before courts of law and other authorities, regardless of the individual’s own mother tongue or nationality. Other languages, such as Sami, Romani and sign languages are also mentioned in section 17 of the Finnish Constitution.
According to the Constitution, the right to one's language and culture shall be guaranteed by an act. Therefore, the Language Act does not entail any new language rights; it only ensures the realisation of the rights set out in the Constitution.
Some of the central provisions of the Language Act are presented below:
The purpose of the Language Act, as defined in section 2, is to ensure the constitutional right of every person to use his or her own language, either Finnish or Swedish, before courts and other authorities. The goal is that the constitutional rights are secured by the authorities without the individual needing specifically to refer to these rights. In addition, an authority may provide better linguistic services than what is required in the Act.
The regional applicability of the Language Act is defined in section 5. The regional and state authorities are divided into unilingual and bilingual authorities. The obligations of a unilingual authority to provide services in both national languages are more limited than those of a bilingual authority. This makes the legislation more flexible according to the citizens' practical needs. Therefore, the linguistic division is beneficial both for the citizens and the authorities. State authorities are always bilingual, whereas their regional and local administrative units are unilingual when their administrative district comprises only municipalities with one official language.
Sections 10 and 23 elaborate on section 2 of the Act. It is stated in section 10 that everyone has the right to use either of the national languages before state authorities and authorities of a bilingual municipality. Unilingual municipal authorities use the language of the municipality, unless the authority in question decides otherwise on request or unless otherwise provided elsewhere in law. Furthermore, authorities are obliged to take initiative in finding out what language the person uses and to provide services accordingly.
It is stated in section 32 that Finnish and Swedish must be used in all information given by the authorities of bilingual municipalities.
According to section 24, a company owned by a bilingual authority must comply with the provisions of the Act in matters pertaining to authorities, in the same manner as bilingual authorities.
In addition to section 17 of the Constitution and the Language Act, further provisions on the linguistic rights are laid down in several different acts and decrees. For example, the Act on the Knowledge of Languages Required of Personnel in Public Bodies concerns the practical implementation of the linguistic rights laid down in section 17 of the Constitution and further elaborated in the Language Act.
It is stated in section 17 of the Constitution that provisions on the right of the Sami to use any of the Sami languages before the authorities are laid down by an act. The purpose of the Sami Language Act is to ensure, for its part, the constitutional right of the Sami to maintain and develop their own language and culture. The Act contains provisions on the right of the Sami to use their own language before the courts and other public authorities and on the duty of the authorities to enforce and promote the linguistic rights of the Sami. The linguistic rights of the Sámi are mainly concentrated in the Sámi homeland in the northern part of the Province of Lapland.
The Constitutional Law Committee has stated that work to preserve and revitalise the endangered Romani language should be continued on the basis of the guidelines set out in Finland’s National Policy on Roma. For example, The National Action Plan on Fundamental and Human Rights 2012−2013 includes an action to carry out a study on the implementation of the linguistic rights of the Roma secured in the Constitution of Finland. This kind of study is already being carried out at the Ministry of Justice.
In its report on the Report of the Government on the application of language legislation 2009, the Constitutional Law Committee noted the need to ascertain the progress made in the position of sign language in various sectors of society. Key legislation in sign language is also needed.
Provisions on sign language are laid down in the special legislation applicable in different administrative branches. According to the present Government Programme, implementation of the linguistic rights of sign language users is to be developed and the possibility of enacting a sign language act will be examined. A study examining this possibility is under way at the Ministry of Justice (2013).
It is not required in the Constitution that a separate act be enacted for other language groups than for the national languages and the Sami languages. However, the Constitution states that the Roma and other language groups have the right to maintain and develop their own language. Additionally, various provisions on other languages are laid down in the special legislation governing the different branches of government.
More information on Sami, Romani, sign language and other languages spoken in Finland can be found in Chapters 2 and 9 of the