The voluntary study of foreign languages in Finnish primary schools has decreased drastically in the 21st century. Only one fifth of schoolchildren today study three languages or more in school.
According to new data from the National Agency for Education (formerly the National Board of Education), in 2000 more than a third of young students began studying a foreign language; about a decade later only a quarter of 4th- and 5th-graders studied a so-called A2 language. B2 languages, taken up in secondary school, have seen an even steeper dip, from one-fifth to just one-tenth of students. Additionally, fewer students have been opting to study traditional foreign language favourites such as German and French.
Municipal savings slash language options
Many municipalities are in the midst of savings drives, which often include cutting education funding. In schools where optional foreign languages are still included in the curriculum, group sizes have ballooned over the past decade.
"Municipalities may decide to raise the minimum group size of a language course from 12 to 16 students. In classes with 30-40 students language learning groups end up not getting off the ground at all," says specialist Jaakko Salo from the Trade Union of Education (OAJ).
This leads to a situation where students who would like to study a new language in their school may not be able to.
Students on unequal footing
Teachers have expressed concern over the fact that foreign language learning has been increasingly centralised in southern Finland.
"Children are denied teaching simply based on where they live," says chair Sanna Karppanen from the Federation of Foreign Language Teachers. "If you're from Helsinki, Tampere or Turku, you're set – there's a practical cornucopia of choices. But Finland is more than just the big southern cities; in many regions the only other languages available are Swedish and English."
Salo also finds that the children of highly educated parents are far more likely to choose a language other than Swedish or English for their children to learn.
Karppanen says she fears that language proficiency is no longer appreciated as a skill in Finland.
"People keep saying you'll be fine just learning English. But then employers and politicians go on about needing lots of multilingual young people – which isn't something that is reflected in reality," she says.
Karppanen says her solution to keeping Finnish foreign language skills from degenerating into just English and Swedish is to properly fund municipalities.
"We need to find new ways of supporting municipalities that lack adequate resources to offer foreign languages. And municipalities themselves need to consider how they feel about language learning," Karppanen says.
OAJ's Salo says that municipalities should be obligated to offer an A2 language as part of their primary school curriculum.
"The previous government was unable to see this through, and it never became a law," says Salo.
Foreign language learning should begin in first grade
The teacher's union also believes that students should begin learning their first foreign language as early as the first grade, with an elective foreign language introduced in third grade. If this were to happen the union argues, more students would choose to continue studying languages through into secondary school. The organisation also believes that studying Swedish in the sixth grade wouldn't feel as challenging.
The OAJ described a move last autumn to shift studying Swedish to the sixth grade - earlier than before - as a good idea, but said that it should not reduce the number of teaching time in the language as kids get older.
All the same, there has been a clear shift in emphasis in language learning from the higher to the lower grades. One of the current government's key programmes involves getting students started on learning languages earlier in their school careers. The Education and Culture Ministry and the National Agency for Education are in fact introducing a trial to begin teaching a foreign language from the first grade.