Foreign language learning starting earlier, but few get a choice

Finnish children are now starting language studies in first grade but for many, English is the only option available.

Niilo Luikku and Mikaela Leppälä practice their numbers in English by rolling a die. Image: Kalle Niskala / Yle

As of the start of the year, children in all Finnish schools are starting to study their first foreign language in the first grade. Even though this is aimed at boosting foreign language proficiency, there is a danger that it may also lead to a narrowing of the range of languages studied in later years.

Because of local government budget restraints, the majority of schools in the country are able to offer first-graders only a single language, most often English.

Both the National Agency for Education and the teachers' union, the OAJ, see this as potentially promoting inequalities that may be a problem in later education.

"Finland is a big country and there are varying situations in different localities around the country. It follows from this that children don't have the same preparedness for continuing studies or when entering working life, says OAJ expert Pauliina Viitamies.

Finnish business and industry need employees with a diverse range of language skills. According to National Agency for Education the population's proficiency in a number of different languages is not possible if local schools cannot provide a broad range of language courses.

"Parents, as well, should be bold enough to demand and choose languages other than English," points out Terhi Seinä, counsellor at the National Agency for Education.

Tampere offering 7 languages

In practice, meeting calls to expand the menu of languages available to first-graders requires more teacher training, cooperation between schools and daycare centres, and possibly downsizing classes. It also should include assurances that children can continue with a chosen language in later grades.

The city of Tampere has been a forerunner in language teaching. Foreign language proficiency is a formal part of its development strategy and an investment target for the past decade.

For example, unlike in most parts of the country, first-graders in Tampere can choose a first foreign language from among a list of seven. That list includes English, Swedish, German, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese.

Children in the city's daycare centres are introduced to these various languages through play. An hour of the play day, once a week, is conducted in a foreign language. Every eight weeks the language changes.

Tampere's Coordinator for Foreign Language Learning Outi Verkama says that the routine has produced results. One in three schoolchildren in the city's educational system has chosen a language other than English as a first foreign language.

Teachers keen

Introducing language studies at an earlier age is intended to take advantage of the natural ease at which young children learn language, while reducing the effects of disparities in regional and socio-economic background. Teaching staff have been keen on the change.

Hundreds of classroom teachers and specialist language teachers have taken part in continuing education classes to prepare to work with first-graders.

Story continues after photo.

Teacher Saara Tölli would like to see more languages available to her first-graders. Image: Kalle Niskala / Yle

Saara Tölli, a first grade teacher at the Lohtaja village elementary school in Kokkola in Central Ostrobothnia, teaches English to her class. Previously, she worked in Lahti with classes focused on German as a first foreign language.

"It would be good for a wider range of languages to be taught. English is important, but so are many other languages," says Tölli.

Two of her first-graders, Lenni Lukkarila and Leevi Palola, say that they would choose English in any case.

"It's maybe the easiest," states Lenni.

"English is alright, but so is Swedish," is Leevi's verdict.