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Some schools moving towards expanded language teaching

The City of Lahti is having success in expanding variety in primary school language learning.

Kolmosluokkalaisia englannin tunnilla.
Language teaching in primary schools starts by combining play and learning. Image: Emilia Korpela / Yle

While many primary schools in Finland have cut back on optional language courses, schools in the southern Finnish city of Lahti have seen a burst of interest among children in courses teaching languages that are usually less common in the educational system.

The primary school syllabus includes studies of an A1 language, usually English, which starts in the first grade. A2 language studies are optional, and when available, may start in the third grade. These are most often French, German or Russian.

However, according to statistics from the National Agency for Education, the number of A2 students has fallen by a third in the past 20 years.

In Lahti, now, however, it is not difficult to find second graders who are excited about starting to learn a new language next year, with half already signed up for A2 language courses in the third grade.

If the trend continues, Lahti can look forward to a lot of local language skill diversity in a decade with, for example, 2,500 young people able to speak Spanish.

Municipalities are required to provide A1 language teaching in local schools. The provision of A2 language teaching is voluntary. As a result, about half of municipalities in the country do not have schools offering A2 language courses.

A matter of equality

The majority of primary school students in Finland study only English in addition to the second national language – Swedish for Finnish-speakers and Finnish for Swedish-speakers. Others such as French, German, Spanish and Russian have become increasingly rare offerings in primary schools.

The Confederation of Finnish Industries has repeatedly highlighted the increasing need for diverse language skills in working life. Finnish companies are international. Most companies use English, but companies also need proficiency in other languages.

The Federation of Foreign Language Teachers in Finland, SUKOL, has also long been concerned about the decline in diversity of language skills.

Magneettitaululle ripustettuja englanninkielisiä lappua, joissa on ohjeita lukea tekstiä eri tavoin, esimerkiksi hiiri tai hirviö.
The dominant position of English studies is evident even in primary schools. Image: Emilia Korpela / Yle

"On paper, the situation in municipalities is reasonable, but in practice it is weak and developing in a weaker direction," says the head of the federation, Outi Vilkuna.

Vilkuna sees the availability of A2 languages as a matter of equality.

At present, the teaching of less-common languages is heavily concentrated the large cities of southern Finland. A number of municipalities in the country have completely given up offering A2 language studies because of budgetary pressures.

The dominance of English is reflected in primary schools, with few pupils opting to study French, German or Russian, for example.

In some municipalities, the minimum group sizes needed before courses can be held are also set so high that it is often impractical. In contrast, Hämeenlinna, for example, has decided not to set lower limit for group size at all.

The age at which children start an A2 language also varies from municipality to municipality. Few municipalities follow SUKOL's guidelines that recommend that teaching starts from the third grade. In the majority of municipalities, A2 language teaching, when available, begins in the fourth or fifth grade.

Group sizes and course availability depend on municipal policy. Municipalities do not receive a separate state subsidy for organizing A2 language courses, so availability requires a desire to put municipal money into this kind of teaching.

Even when available, the social background of children influences the decision to take advantage of the opportunity to learn a wider range of languages. Sonja Kosunen, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Helsinki, noted in a 2019 article in the daily Helsingin Sanomat that although optional courses are open to everyone, they are mostly used by children from upper-income families.

"Parents control the choice. The end result is influenced by whether language skills are seen as necessary in the family and what opportunities in life the child is seen to have. Children, on the other hand, are more open-minded. They may choose a language because it sounds nice," Kosunen noted.

The city of Lahti, it is confident that investing in languages will not lead the municipality into bankruptcy

Lassi Kilponen, the city's Director of Education, sees language offerings as a balance between student numbers, finance and supply. The city's approach is to offer a wide range of languages and let the students decide which will actually be taught.

The teaching of an A2 language in Lahti costs about 2,000 euros per year for each weekly study group. Kilponen does not consider the sum to be very significant in light of the overall cost of primary education.

"If a little more is spent, it will not drive the municipality into bankruptcy. It may require that in some groups, the number of pupils may be slightly increased, or some books or computer terminals are not ordered, but cost is not the primary factor," says Kilponen.

Länsiharjun koulun kolmasluokkalaiset seuraavat opettajan mallia enlannin kielen tunnilla: nyt ohjeena on laittaa pyyhekumi korvan taakse.
Merja Tuominen, an English-language teacher at Länsiharju Primary School, believes that the choice of languages is also influenced by the teacher. Choosing a new language may be of more interest if pupils feel comfortable with the teacher. The photo shows a game with the teacher instructing pupils to hide an eraser behind their ears. Image: Emilia Korpela / Yle

According to the Foreign Language Teachers Federation's Vilkuna, it also matters how languages are marketed. In Lahti, language teachers have worked hard to inspire students to dive into the world of languages. Children have been introduced to languages through language clubs, videos and classes tours for both pupils and parents.

Merja Tuominen, an English-language teacher at the Länsiharju Primary School in Lahti, says that parents are often more concerned than the children about the extra work caused by the new subjects.

"At the initial stage, there is quite a bit of additional work. The language is learned by talking, playing and singing. Of course, words are needed for communication, and in the upper grades, learning vocabulary takes quite a lot of time," she explains.

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