What is a mother tongue?

For an individual, a mother tongue is a language of thought, emotion, identity and social relations, and can be defined in several ways. According to the so-called order criteria, the mother tongue is person's first acquired language, and the language best mastered according to the skill criteria. According to the quantity criteria, it is the language most used by the person. According to the identity criteria, on the other hand, the mother tongue is the language with which a person feels that they belong to the group of speakers. An individual may have one or more mother tongues.Person’s own mother tongue skills and appreciation of one's own culture are linked to the development of language competence and multilingualism, as well as to the learning of other subjects and languages.

(translated from OPH 2016, p. 3-4)



What is a registered mother tongue?

Every person living in Finland has a mother tongue registered in the Population Information System. The authorities use it to collect statistics on the population and plan services according to language.

Why right now?

Many experts and reports have already recommended changing the current system. The number of multilingual people in Finland is growing, so it is important to change now to avoid problems later.



The language recorded in the Population Information System is a tool for the authorities in many different ways. For example, it is used to support service planning and anticipation of service needs. The current system of registering a single mother tongue does not give a true picture of the linguistic diversity of different regions, so it does not accurately provide municipalities with the information they need.

According to Statistics Finland, the number of foreign-language speakers at the end of 2021 was 8.3% of the total population. In reality, there are significantly more people who speak a language other than one of Finland’s national languages. Many parents of multilingual children may register Finnish as their child's mother tongue because they believe it will make their child's everyday life easier. They may fear that their child will be treated differently because of their mother tongue, or that the child would later need to prove their language skills in Finnish if another language is registered. The current system therefore does not give the full picture of children's language skills and forces parents to choose one language over another.

Planning services to support multilingualism would be easier if it were possible to register more than one mother tongue. For example, it is currently very difficult to correctly assess the need for mother tongue teaching in schools. If it were possible to register more mother tongues in Finland, this would ensure that all bilingual and multilingual people living in Finland have the right to receive the correct kind of support. After all, everyone has the right to their own language - whether monolingual or multilingual.

This change has been recommended by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The Committee has recommended that Finland should make it easier to register multiple identities and multiple language communities in the Population Information System. The Committee has asked the Finnish authorities to ensure the principle of free self-identification (Article 3 of the Framework Convention) by allowing the population register to record a person's membership of several different ethnic or linguistic groups in order to better reflect the individual's own choice.

The registration system must be updated to support linguistic diversity among people living in Finland. Bilingualism and multilingualism are an important part of many people's lives, everyday life and identity. It is time to recognise Finland's diversity and make it possible to register more than one mother tongue.