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Students increasingly reject Swedish language, close to 50% drop in exams over last decade

Upper secondary students in Finland are losing interest in studying the country's second official language of Swedish. State civil service jobs still require that applications pass a Swedish proficiency test.

Joensuu pupil Janina Hirvonen plans to attend a test in Swedish as part of her matriculation exams, unlike many of her peers. Image: Petri Lassheikki / Yle

The last ten years or so in Finland have seen an almost 50 percent drop in the number of upper secondary school pupils who sign up for a Swedish language exam as part of their end-of-school matriculation testing. Ever since the second domestic language exam (Swedish for Finnish speakers and Finnish for Swedish speakers) was made voluntary in 2005, interest in taking it among students has fallen steadily.

In spring 2017, over half of the country's upper secondary pupils did not include the Swedish language exam as one of the four exams they must take to graduate. Ten years ago, this number was closer to a third. The least interest in learning Swedish appears to be concentrated in the regions of Eastern Finland. The phenomenon is also linked to gender, as only one in every four students electing to test in Swedish was male.

Future of state workers in peril?

Finland requires that all applicants for state civil service jobs pass a language proficiency exam in Swedish. The Civil Service Language Proficiency Certificate is also still an obligatory subject in all university curriculum.

"There's a considerable drop in skills level, and the situation just seems to get worse from year to year. Some of the students' proficiency is very poor when they start the course," says Swedish language instructor from the University of Eastern Finland, Päivi Kammonen.

Finnish law requires that university students be in possession of a Swedish language proficiency that is on par with at least a cum laude approbatur-level matriculation exam result upon graduation. A command of the Swedish-language vocabulary associated with their area of study is also required.

Students hoping to pass the Swedish exam required for civil servants often have to repeat the exam many times before they are successful. Some university student graduation dates are even delayed by a reluctance to take the obligatory Swedish lessons. Kammonen says the biggest problem in Eastern Finland is with university students of the natural sciences and forestry.

Finnish law determines the standards

Swedish language teachers at the university level report that they have had to adapt their tuition to make up for the incoming students' weakened language proficiency. They can't change the state requirements however, because they are determined by Finnish law.

"We offer refresher courses, but they aren't enough to replace courses that were never taken in upper secondary school. We try and prepare the university pupils for the exam as best we can by giving them exercises ahead of time and extra prep for the oral component," says Kammonen.

"Many are surprised to discover the level of Swedish language required at Finland's universities. It feels as if upper secondary students haven't been told that they won't be able to avoid Swedish in their tertiary education," Kammonen says.

Mandatory Swedish tuition is controversial

The biggest drop in interest in Swedish among upper secondary school students is in Eastern Finland, where the number of students taking the Swedish test as part of their matriculation exam has fallen by 60 percent in the last ten years. The decline is also apparent in officially bilingual areas, although it isn't quite so pronounced. The capital city region of Uusimaa has seen an approximately 33 percent drop.

Mandatory Swedish instruction has been a bone of contention in Finland for many years. In late 2017, the Finnish Parliament approved a law that allows for a "language experiment", which grants sixth graders in the municipalities that are participating in the trial to choose a different language to replace Swedish. The populist Finns Party and Blue Reform have repeatedly called for tuition in the Swedish language to be made voluntary, and for university and civil service institutions to drop the Swedish language proficiency requirement.