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New curriculum boosts children's language learning through fun

A new primary education curriculum is expected to show results next year when language teaching will increasingly be tied to playing and singing in Finnish schools.

Syväkankaan koulun ekaluokkalaiset kielisuihkussa
Children in Kemi learn English and Swedish through a new inclusive teaching method. Image: Kati Siponmaa / Yle

In autumn 2016 Finnish elementary schools will aim to teach languages to young students more effectively than ever. Young children are especially capable language learners, and a new curriculum will harness just that strength.

Finnish children navigate fairly immersive linguistic waters already due to the Anglocentrism of much of popular culture. Children's programmes rarely translate the names of characters anymore, for instance, so kids tuning in learn to know them in the original English.

Seven-year-old Tuomas Nissinen already knows some English basics and says he is happy to learn.

"It's nice that we can already learn English in first grade," the boy says.

Playing and singing

Language enrichment teaching includes classes that are taught in a language other than the one mostly used each week. At least in the cities of Helsinki, Kokkola and Naantali this type of education is already in use. In the Syväkangas school in the northern city of Kemi, a light version of this practice is used, called the 'language shower'. The term plays on the Finnish term for immersive language teaching, kielikylpy or 'language bath'.

"We lower the threshold to learning a new language," says principal Susanne Nyman. "We encourage all of our students to learn through talking, playing and singing in different languages."

Nyman says that in Kemi the teaching focuses on English and Swedish, with language activities interspersed throughout the lessons. The Syväkangas goal is to incorporate language teaching into every class.

Teaching helps with nerves

Nyman says that the children have responded well to the new form of teaching that is more reliant on face-to-face contact rather than noses buried in textbooks.

"The languages come alive and come closer to the students, there's no sign of any forced involvement," she says. "It's about travelling in the languages with a fun attitude and that helps with learning."

The principal says she is convinced that every single student would benefit from 'language showers'. She adds that research backs up the method's increase in structural and phonetic comprehension.

"And perhaps above all it helps the students deal with insecurity when using a foreign language. Many feel that they should be able to speak a language fluently from the get-go, but that isn't how it works. It's the language itself that helps with the process."

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