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Foreign language skills worsening, except in English

Languages other than English are dropping in popularity in Finland, to the potential detriment of exports.

Työhakemuksessa kysytään kielitaitoa
Certain boxes are ticked more often than others. Image: Sarah Laukkanen / Yle

Besides English, the popularity of studying foreign languages has been falling in Finland for years. The Matriculation Examination Board reports that less than half as many students take secondary education finals in Swedish language studies than before. French and German have also been declining in popularity.

Sanna Karppanen, chair of the Federation of Foreign Language Teachers, says that the broader effects of such a downward trend can only be guessed.

"We don't know how this might affect the Finnish economy," says Karppanen. "Employers have long bemoaned the lack of proficient speakers of foreign languages on the job market."

Jobs already affected

One example of a domestic company in need of multilingual speakers is lock manufacturer Abloy, which conducts business in nearly 100 countries.

The firm says that so far their language specialist needs have been met. However, cases where candidates have to be disqualified due to insufficient language skills are on the rise.

"It's the ugly truth," says Abloy HR chief Kirsi Parviainen. "We have to interrupt the recruitment process if someone demonstrates low spoken and written skills in a foreign language."

Parviainen says she understands that developing fluency in any language typically takes years, and that employers themselves are seldom able to offer comprehensive language training to employees.

Abloy's main working language is English, but the company also regularly needs staff who speak Spanish, Russian, German, French or Swedish, too.

Professor Riitta Pyykkö from the University of Turku emphasises the serious need for foreign language abilities.

"Nothing has changed in that our products have to be marketed and sold in the customer's native language," she says.

Exporters urge municipalities, schools to shape up

Export businesses are the lifeblood of the Finnish economy, which is why Pyykkö wants a number of decision-making bodies to wake up to the importance of language proficiency. Her report for the Ministry of Education, published in December, tackled Finland's full linguistic repertoire, specifically how the education system produces fluent speakers.

"Municipalities and their business interests should really consider which languages are important in which regions in order to improve the supply of language teaching in schools," Pyykkö suggests.

Abloy's Parviainen also looks to learning institutions themselves for the impetus to change.

"We collaborate with schools and discuss language pedagogy with teachers to bring our point across," she tells Yle. "We're trying to reach out to students to say, at least get to grips with English!"

English as a lingua franca

Language teachers' union chair Karppanen says that speaking English is no longer an issue of foreign language acquisition as such, but a common necessity. She also highlights French and German as important languages for Finns to know, not to mention Russian.

Professor Pyykkö says she can think of several reasons for the recent proliferation of English as a favourite language subject.

"People are pretty quick to think – erroneously – that since English is a lingua franca we don't need to learn anything else. Municipalities also get a lot of blame for not offering diverse language courses. But they only offer courses for which teachers and students themselves create a demand," she notes.

Pyykkö further suggests that university-level students should be expected to complete studies in two foreign languages instead of just one. She says that the application phase should also involve multilingual proficiency.

Children and teenagers learn languages in a variety of contexts apart from school, such as through games, travelling, the internet and possible international hobbies. These types of learning are not addressed sufficiently, Pyykkö says.

"Motivation is what everyone needs to learn a language," she says.

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