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Some Swedish speakers in Finland prefer English over Finnish

Swedish-speaking teens in Finland say they need more practice using Finnish.

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Image: Sini Ojanperä / Yle

A fresh report finds that some young Swedish speakers in Finland are more comfortable in English than they are in Finnish.

Swedish-speaking pupils in Helsinki told Yle they don’t learn enough spoken Finnish at school to manage in everyday situations.

"Instruction focuses way too much on grammar and not enough on how to speak," high school student Olivia Linder from Tölö gymnasium in Helsinki told Yle.

Students told Yle they wanted Finnish classes to focus on improving everyday communication skills.

"We’re all going to have to speak Finnish. And that’s not something we’re learning right now. You lose your confidence when talking if you’re just thinking about the grammar," fellow Tölö gymnasium student Adele Westerlund added.

A recent report by think-tank Magma found that many teens in Finland’s Swedish-language schools were having an increasingly difficult time with Finnish. On the other hand, the share of those with excellent Finnish-language skills had also risen.

The report said some Swedish-speaking teens in Finland prefer to speak English in everyday situations because they felt insecure using Finnish.

The Swedish-speaking School-student Union of Finland (FSS) has also criticised the level of Finnish-language education in Swedish schools.

"As we can see in Magma’s report, many kids switch to English when faced with speaking Finnish. To be able to speak Finnish means using it," said FSS president Emelie Jäntti.

"No button for learning Finnish"

In Finland, the Finnish National Agency for Education determines school curricula, including material covered in language classes.

Yvonne Nummela, a counsellor at the agency, accepted students’ criticism that instruction may sometimes home in on the finer points of grammar. But she added, "Finnish grammar is expansive."

Nummela said challenges for most Swedish-speaking students relate to reading and writing in Finnish. Some kids living in strong Swedish-speaking environments may also need more help with their verbal Finnish skills.

As a Finno-Ugric language, Finnish doesn’t sit on the same Germanic language branch as Swedish and English. This means Swedish speakers don’t have a grammatical framework for Finnish and those living in predominantly Swedish-speaking communities often learn Finnish from zero.

"Finnish isn’t like Swedish or English in the sense that you would have the tools ready for learning Finnish grammar. There’s no button to press for learning Finnish," Nummela added.

About 5.2 percent of Finland's population are part of the Swedish-speaking minority, but the population has steadily declined since the 18th century, when nearly 20 percent spoke the language. However, Swedish remains one of the country's official languages.

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