Mutual understanding of each other’s languages promotes mobility between the Nordic countries and enhances the sense of affinity between the peoples of the Region. The main focus of the work to promote language understanding, both now and in the future, is on children and young people’s understanding of written and oral Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.
The ability to communicate usually presupposes a common language, but there are enough similarities for Danish, Norwegian and Swedish speakers to understand each other. For historical reasons, Danish has enjoyed a strong position as a foreign language in Iceland, and Swedish is one of Finland’s two official languages. As part of the same kingdom, Danish is strong in Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Swedish is the official language of Åland.
Responsibility for Nordic language work is divided between two different councils of ministers. The main responsibility lies with the Nordic Council of Ministers for Education and Research (MR-U). The Nordic Council of Ministers for Culture (MR-K) has sectoral responsibility for language co-operation. Both of them prioritise the Nordic language community and have children and young people as one of the target groups in their work programmes. Indeed, the Council of Ministers also has children and young people as one of its inter-sectoral priorities.
The main source of regulation for language co-operation consists of the four agreements: the Helsinki Treaty, the Cultural Agreement, the Language Declaration and the Nordic Language Convention.
The Helsinki Treaty states that the Nordic countries must seek to preserve and develop co-operation in the legal, cultural, social and economic spheres, as well as in the areas of infrastructure and environmental protection. Regarding mutual language understanding in the Nordic Region, Article 8 states that “Educational provision in the schools of each of the Nordic countries shall include an appropriate measure of instruction in the languages, cultures and general social conditions of the other Nordic countries, .[...]”.
Similarly, the Cultural Agreement is based on an objective of enhancing and intensifying co-operation between the Nordic countries – in this case, in the cultural sphere. The purpose of the agreement is to help increase the overall impact of national investment in education, research and other cultural activities, and ensure that the countries work together to develop the Nordic cultural community, e.g. by “promoting teaching in the other Nordic countries’ languages, cultures and social conditions [...]”.
The Language Declaration (the Declaration on Nordic Language Policy) defines priorities for each country’s national work on language policy. In other words, it points in an overall direction, but each country has its own responsibilities at national level. Different national considerations mean, therefore, that not all of the countries focus on the same issues at the same time. The declaration focuses on the following areas of language policy: teaching in Scandinavian languages as neighbouring languages and as foreign languages; parallel language use between English and the main Nordic languages; the multilingual society and multilingual citizens; and the language of official agencies (plain language use). Every two years, the Council of Ministers submits a report to the Nordic Council on how the countries have followed up on the Language Declaration.
The Nordic Language Convention also applies. The Convention, which entered into force in 1987, is legally binding for all five Nordic countries. The Convention is aimed at governments. Its purpose is to help ensure that Nordic citizens, in certain contexts, are able to communicate in their own languages with official bodies in other Nordic countries. Responsibility for following up on the provisions in the Convention rests with the appropriate national agencies, while national legislation safeguards individual rights.
Language work under the Nordic Council of Ministers for Education and Research (MR-U) consists of the following three priorities:
Follow-up work on the Language Declaration
Responsibility for follow-up work on the Language Declaration rests at national level, but from 2014 more attention will be paid to how Nordic initiatives can help to support national efforts.
Efforts to enhance children and young people’s language comprehension
Focused and targeted efforts are needed to improve children and young people’s mutual understanding of the neighbouring languages (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish).
The teaching of neighbouring languages must emphasise the importance of listening comprehension and mutual understanding between Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.
MR-K also prioritises children and young people’s interest in and understanding of Nordic languages in its cultural work (literature plays a special role in this context). Digital solutions have significant potential when it comes to providing shared cultural and linguistic experiences. As part of a joint project between the educational and cultural sectors, funds are allocated for distributing Nordic short films and documentaries via the website Norden i skolen (the Nordic Region in the School).
Responsibility for co-ordinating Nordic language co-operation lies with Nordic Language Co-ordination (NOSK). For the period 2014–18, the actual work is being organised by the Federation of the Norden Associations. The expert group Nordic Language Council (ENS) assures the quality of the work. The ENS website provides information about the expert group and stakeholders and about activities such as Nordic Courses in Languages and Literature (Nordkurs), Nordic Languages (Nordspråk), the Nordic Gems courses for student teachers, the Nordic Language Pilots, the Network of Nordic Language Councils, the Nordic Sign Language Network and the Nordic group for parallel language use.