The educational system of Finland has been universally recognized as one of the best. Not only do the Finns expertise in mathematics and science but also in languages for, according to PISA, they possess superior literacy reading skills to those of many other European countries. Whilst the Finns have proven themselves to be effortless learners of foreign languages, their willingness to embark on learning a new language is decreasing, and the highly praised Finnish education system is to blame.
In addition to the learner’s mother tongue, the student is compelled to learn the second official language of the state, which for the majority is Swedish. If began in elementary school (at the age of 9-10), this language may also cover the requirements of an A-language, studying of which is also compulsory. Languages begun in lower secondary (at the age of 13-14) are called B –languages and the ones in upper secondary B-, C- or D-languages. Due to its nationwide availability (and status as lingua franca), English is the nation’s favourite A-language. The Swedish lessons, however, don’t usually begin before the lower secondary. Furthermore, there are three opportunities to choose an optional language. At the age of 10 the student may usually choose between German, French or Swedish and at 14 the selection is often expanded with Spanish or Russian. Languages such as Japanese or Italian may also be included in the selection in upper secondary.
Despite the compulsory Swedish education, only 44% of the university students accepted in 2012 achieved the required B1 -level. The students dislike of the subject is demonstrated in politics for the movements against mandatory Swedish are gaining publicity. The mandatory Swedish education should, according to the Finnish government, protect the rights of the country’s 260 000 Finnish-Swedish inhabitants, most of whom live in their separate communities. With its institutions, communities and the political party the minority is moderately segregated. Because of this, the Finns are little exposed to the language and lack the interaction required in learning Swedish. When the people are being taught Swedish against their will they quickly develop a repugnance to language learning. Consequently, the popularity of other foreign languages wanes.
Due to the curriculum of the upper secondary students, the possibility of beginning a new language is often eliminated. Although the curriculum is mostly self-tailored, up to 68% of the syllabus consists of compulsory courses. The students who wish to pursue a non-humanistic career may therefore have to discontinue their language studies in order to attend the required courses. The language classes often overlap with advanced mathematics, chemistry and physics. For these students the language studies can only be proceeded outside the school schedule assuming they possess the time and energy for it.
The transfer from one institute to another may prove difficult to a language student as the language selections can vary massively. He may have to abandon the language studies altogether or start over. Languages like Italian, Spanish, Latin and even Russian may only be offered in a scarce number of schools as the national guidelines on language education are exceedingly vague. The only languages the institution must provide are English and Swedish (or Finnish in the case of a Finnish-Swedish institution).
Nevertheless, today the institutions are attempting a new approach. The elementary schools in Helsinki area are endeavoring to include more options to their language curriculum and, more importantly, encouraging their students to study a language other than English at the inception of their school career. However, the students may still later compromise their language studies by switching from A-language group into that of the B-language or by abandoning the studies altogether as they can usually still attend the mandatory A-language examination with English.
The parents, who have recognized the significance of language skills in working life, encourage their children by trying to secure them a place in a bilingual school or kindergarten. There is, however, a severe lack of places in schools and kindergartens in the cosmopolitan area. Also the municipal amalgamations have created considerable distances between schools and the children’s homes resulting in a limited selection.
Finland may be compelled to alter its whole school system in fixing this issue. It seems, as already proposed by a work group in 1992, Finland should simply stop pampering its 5% minority and make Swedish at least subjectively optional and thus allow it to be substituted by a language preferred by the student. The time has come for Finland to break the historical chains and become the multilingually competent country it yearns to be.
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