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More than 90 percent of Finnish residents know at least one foreign language

The biggest improvement in linguistic skills has been among those with lower education levels, while the gender gap has narrowed.

Penaali ja kirjoja opiskelijoiden käytössä pöydällä.
High schoolers studying German – an increasingly rare skill in Finland. Image: Antti Karhunen / Yle

More than nine out of 10 adults in Finland speak at least one other language in addition to their mother tongue. According to data out from Statistics Finland on Wednesday, 93 percent of residents aged 18-64 who were polled last year said they could speak more than one language, at least to some extent. The result was about the same as from a similar study carried out five years ago.

However the relationship between educational level and linguistic skills seems to have diminished in that time.

For instance, among those who have only completed basic compulsory education, the ability to speak another language has risen by 37 percentage points since 1995. It now stands at 87 percent, compared to 91 percent of those who finished secondary studies at a vocational or high school, and virtually all people with university-level degrees.

Knowledge of foreign languages grew steadily from 1995 – when Finland joined the EU – until 2012, levelling off since then at around 93 percent.

Gender gap narrows

Up until the turn of the millennium, men still lagged behind women in language skills by 10 percentage points, but this gap had narrowed by half as of last year (to 90 vs 95 percent).

The most widely spoken second languages were English, Swedish and German. About 90 percent of respondents surveyed said they spoke some English, while seven out of 10 spoke Swedish – not counting the approximately 5.5 percent of Finns who speak Swedish as their native tongue. It is the country’s second official language. Less than a third of Finnish residents speak any German.

About 4.5 percent of people living in Finland last year were foreign citizens. Estonians made up by far the largest group, followed by Russians and Iraqis.

EDIT: This story has been updated to remove references to bilingualism, as the level of proficiency in foreign languages was not reported in the survey.

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