Finland: enhancing national language skills

published 20 December 2017 updated 20 December 2017

Languages should be learned at the earliest educational stage and language studies in Finland must be guaranteed for all.

That’s according to education union Opetusalan Ammattijärjestö in response to the publication of a report on the state and development needs of Finland’s language skills.

The report, covering the entire Finnish education system, was prepared by Professor Riitta Pyykkö, Vice-Rector at the University of Turku’s Vice-Rector and submitted to the Minister of Education, Sanni Grahn-Laasonen, on 13 December.

“In Opetusalan Ammattijärjestö (OAJ), we consider it to be very important that Finnish children have many opportunities to learn diverse languages,” stressed OAJ President Olli Luukkainen.

It is also very beneficial that foreign language learning begins at an early age, even at early childhood education level, he added. Because language is a very important tool for communication, children should have the opportunity to learn many languages, given that, “with languages, you can learn and understand different cultures”.

The OAJ, Luukkainen insisted, is worried that municipalities have too much power in deciding which language learning possibilities they offer in their schools. “These [report] guidelines are good, but not sufficient, and we need some more stronger tools, like legislation. Only then will equal opportunities be ensured in all corners of Finland,” he concluded.

Vision for national language skills

The report envisions that, in 2025, Finland will be an active member of the international community, with its strength lying in its linguistic and cultural diversity. Investments will have been made in the development of language skills, with multiple languages confidently used side-by-side. Each working-age citizen will be proficient not only in the national languages of Finland, but also in English, and most people will also be proficient in one or more languages other than these. Language skills acquired informally, for example in working life and free time activities, will have been identified and recognised along with the skills learned in formal education, and people will constantly develop their language skills.

To achieve this, the report presents numerous measures and proposals, including:

·         In future, language studies would begin in the spring term of the first grade at the latest

·         The structure of general upper secondary education would be developed to enable flexible, long-term and diverse language studies by taking advantage of cross-curricular multidisciplinary modules

·         Educational institutions would offer a variety of language learning paths at various levels of education: language clubs, gamification and other possibilities enabled by digital applications

·         Municipalities would be encouraged to prepare, by 2020, language and internationalisation programmes in which language instruction would be examined in terms of the continuity of pupils’ language learning paths, the range of languages offered, the distribution of language choices, the needs of the local or regional business and industry, and international needs

·         Universities would devise new types of degree programmes combining language subjects and other content

Conflicting pressures

According to the report, Finland’s language reserve is under conflicting pressures: fewer languages are being studied and proficiency in foreign languages is often limited to proficiency in English only. At the same time, international cooperation required different language skills as Finland’s economic focus has moved away from Europe.

In the past few years, Finland has become more multicultural and linguistically diverse, alongside the growth of immigration. This also has established new requirements for the teaching of Finnish and Swedish as a second language on the one hand and for the identification and recognitions of immigrants’ other language skills on the other.

The report will serve as a basis for drawing up a national language strategy, with feedback invited from a broad range of stakeholders.