As the majority of kids returned to school on Thursday, thousands of Helsinki first graders will begin their school careers learning foreign languages.
Following a pilot project which explored starting foreign language studies as early as the first grade of primary school, the government is now spreading the initiative nationwide that, by the year 2020, all first graders will begin studies in foreign languages.
Seven-year-old Noel Fernando is one of the first graders who'll begin learning a foreign language this year. He's among eleven other students at Helsinki’s Itäkeskus primary school whose parents have decided their kids will learn Chinese. The students had to pass an entrance exam to be accepted into the group.
”We thought we could give our child a bit of a challenge. And also when faced with such a great opportunity, of course we had to take it,” says Noel’s mother Maija Lepola.
Lepola says it was not difficult to choose Chinese, instead of the more popular English, French or German. Chinese also has a practical use.
”At least now, when I think of the future, employment opportunities might be pretty good. Of course you never know how the world will change in the next 20 years, but then again the more languages you learn, the easier it is.”
Increasing language options in schools
While some municipalities like Rovaniemi began the early-language project last year, government plans to have legislation changed by January 2020 when first graders will be expected to take up foreign languages.
According to the National Agency for Education, approximately 8,600 first graders - or about 14 percent of all first-year students - studied a foreign language last year.
Helsinki is among the most recent municipalities to implement the project across all of its schools. It marks a change from previous years when foreign language studies started in the third grade.
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The Itäkeskus primary school principal Jutta-Riina Karhunen hopes that families will favour foreign languages other than English for their children, for example Chinese.
”China has such a great economy and it’s influence is only growing. Helsinki needs more people who speak Chinese,” Karhunen says .
Karhunen goes on to explain the value of language studies.
”Learning a new language is never just about learning to speak, it’s about learning a different culture. China has a rich cultural heritage and I'm sure it interests many families.”
Kids more flexible at learning new language
Pirjo Harjanne, a professor of Foreign Language Education at Helsinki University believes it is a good idea that kids begin learning new languages at an early stage.
According to Harjanne there is a common idea that adults cannot learn languages as well as children.
”Generally speaking, adults tend to need explicit, language structure and vocabulary-focused lessons, while children benefit more from functional learning. Children are more flexible in learning a language, especially in pronunciation.”
First grader Noel has already got a jump on his studies, as he confidently proclaims ni hao, Chinese for "hello."