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Use of Breitbart texts in Finnish matriculation exams ignites controversy

News that English-language sections of nationwide matriculation exams have relied on texts from the far-right US website Breitbart has ruffled feathers in Finland. The English teachers' association says the excerpts in question were on neutral subjects and therefore apolitical.

Kokelaat valmistautuivat tekemään sähköisen ylioppilaskirjoituksen
Finnish matriculation exams take place twice a year. Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

Finnish students sitting for a listening comprehension exam in the English language on Monday were surprised to run into a text excerpt from the conservative news site Breitbart. Investigation reveals that the same exams relied on Breitbart texts in 2011 as well.

Before they can graduate, upper secondary school pupils in Finland sit for gruelling matriculation exams that play a large part in determining their future prospects. Finns tend to learn several languages in school and many chose to learn English from a young age. It follows that every student that took the longer-form English comprehension tests in 2011 and 2017 was therefore exposed to the Breitbart texts. In 2017 alone, this number was estimated at close to 18,000 students.

Teachers don't see a problem

The Association of Teachers of English in Finland's chair, Eija Venäläinen, says that while Breitbart is considered a very controversial site now, that wasn't the case back in 2015 and 2009 when the exams in question were being prepared. She says she would understand the criticism better if the sections that were chosen focused on a political issue.

"The excerpts that were included in the listening exam were neutral, and not politically charged... [I think] it's a good thing that we use a variety of text sources in the exams," Venäläinen explains.

She feels that the critical reaction to the Breitbart texts has perhaps been blown out of proportion. She says her English language teacher's organization has not felt compelled to make contact with the people who drew up the exam or with the Finnish National Agency for Education.

Venäläinen posits that the Breitbart site only really came to the attention of the Finnish public in November 2016, after Donald Trump was elected US President. One of his first moves was to appoint the former head of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, as his strategic advisor.

Fact-checking sites the world over have repeatedly condemned Breitbart content for blatant lies and and fabricated news items. The website has also been widely criticized for its racist and nationalistic content.

Exam board "not very familiar" with site

Finland's largest circulation daily Helsingin Sanomat first broke the story about the Breitbart excerpts appearing in the nationwide exams on Tuesday. In an interview with HS, a secretary at the Matriculation Examination Board admitted that the board was not very familiar with Breitbart's reputation.

Acting director Robin Lundell spoke to HS on behalf of the board. He says that the use of the texts is not necessarily as scandalous as it may seem, as it can be seen from several angles.

"Perhaps it was the linguistic features of the material or a desire to awaken people's thoughts that led to the decision. Language exists all around us, and maybe this can be seen as an open-minded way of collecting different specimens," he told the paper.

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