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Finland ranks sixth in English skills, early instruction crucial

A survey of 80 countries finds that the Finns trail the Dutch, the Singaporeans and most Nordic neighbours in English abilities.

Kids in Finland are widely exposed to English at school as well as via social media, games, TV, movies and music. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

Finns are among the world's best speakers of English as a foreign language, according to testing carried out in 80 countries.

English teacher Päivi Koski, a board member of the Federation of Foreign Language Teachers in Finland (SUKOL) agrees that English language abilities here are generally good. The younger someone is, the better he or she usually speaks English, she says.

"Boys learn a lot through gaming, and youngsters hear English a lot otherwise, too. Fortunately TV programmes are not dubbed here," she says.

Netherlands tops list

The language instruction firm EF Education First tested adults in 80 countries. The education firm, established in Sweden in 1965, operates in 55 countries.

Its results found the best English abilities in the Netherlands. Finland ranks sixth after neighbouring Nordic countries Sweden, Denmark and Norway, as well as Singapore.

While the comparison does not include traditionally English-speaking countries, it does include some such as Singapore, the Philippines, Pakistan, South Africa and Nigeria, where English is an official language. Singaporeans and South Africans are ranked fifth and eighth best in English skills.

Earlier instruction pays off

Finland has dropped one notch since the last such survey, but more countries are now included. In Koski's view, Finland's result is excellent.

"I think this is a really good ranking because we know that English is spoken well by the Nordics as well as the Dutch," she says. The Scandinavian and Dutch languages are much more closely related to English than Finnish, which is a Uralic language.

Koski predicts that Finns' language skills will improve further as languages begin to be taught at an earlier age. In some municipalities, earlier language instruction is already available at certain schools. In Helsinki, all pupils will begin learning their first foreign language in first grade beginning next autumn. That is part of the capital's new strategy to boost internationalism.

Incorrect pronunciation hard to root out

Koski says that as instruction begins at earlier ages, the importance of good teaching becomes magnified.

"The younger the age, the more qualified the teacher should be. If pupils don't learn proper pronunciation then when they still have a high receptivity, it is difficult to unlearn [incorrect pronunciation] later on," she points out.

While all the Mediterranean countries included in the comparison were ranked mid-table, Portugal scored significantly higher in 18th place.

Countries ranked as having low or extremely low skills include China, Japan and Russia (36th through 38th) and popular Finnish travel destinations Thailand and Turkey (53rd and 62nd). Bringing up the rear are Iraq and Laos at 79th and 80th.

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