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Parents hail Helsinki move to begin language instruction earlier

Most parents of young children welcome moves by Helsinki and other municipalities to start teaching foreign languages as early as first grade.

Katja and Miska Miettinen Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

Helsinki families with children in pre-school are now being asked to decide which foreign language their first graders will begin to study next autumn.

Starting in autumn 2018, foreign language teaching will begin in first grade for all Helsinki schoolchildren. Next year’s age group will swell to nearly 6,000 kids.

Depending on the municipality, youngsters now start learning their first non-native language in first, second or third grade. Up until now, teaching has usually begun in third grade in capital city schools.

Helsinki’s new city strategy emphasises internationalism and language skills. Therefore more funds have been earmarked to start language classes at an earlier age.

Deputy Mayor Pia Pakarinen, who oversees education, tells Yle there have been no political disputes regarding the change. Helsinki’s director of basic education, Outi Salo, says that only practical issues remain to be ironed out with individual schools’ administrations.

Positive feedback from parents

Katja Miettinen, whose son Miska starts school next year, says that starting language studies right away is "definitely a good thing".

“The earlier you start on a language or languages, the better it is for the child,” she says.

Salo says that city officials have sought feedback from parents through online surveys and meetings, and most seem very pleased with the change.

Helsinki schools have long taught a wide range of languages. Eight out of 10 students begin with English as their first foreign language. Besides the second official language, Swedish, they can also choose from Chinese, Estonian, French, German, Russian or Spanish.

'School shopping' concerns

However they cannot not of course all be offered at every neighbourhood school. This has stoked concerns about ‘school shopping’ – where parents may try to use the language selection as an excuse to get their kids into preferred schools. Salo says she’s not worried that this will become a widespread phenomenon.

Last spring, the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI) granted funds to 95 municipalities and other education providers in order to advance earlier language instruction, says Annamari Kajasto, an educational counsellor at the agency. At least 54 municipalities this autumn launched language teaching in the first or second grade for some 25,000 children.

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