PISA 2003 assessment focused primarily on students’ skills in mathematics, but their skills were also tested in science, reading literacy, and problem solving. In comparison to the previous assessment in 2000, the performance level of this age group has risen in mathematics and science. In reading literacy Finland has kept its position as the leading country.
According to Tuula Haatainen, Finish Minister of Education, there are many reasons for this top performance of Finnish students: Finland does well in terms of educational equality, the training of teachers is well organized and it is the responsibility of communes to organize education.
The aim of this article is to demonstrate the situation of foreign languages in Finland’s educational system in comparison with other European countries. Now that the Finnish presidency of the EU is on the run, it is interesting to know more about abilities in foreign languages, when it comes to a country whose language is very different from all other European languages.
Foreign-language skills in Finland
The Finnish find that they are rather skilled in foreign languages, 77% in comparison with the European average of 44%. But what does it really mean to be skilled?
Could it be related to the practices, such as subtitles on TV ? The subtitles can encourage and make it easier to learn languages, and the respondents of the Nordic countries appreciate the subtitles (93% of the Finns), so this would mean that they are used to hear different languages on TV.
It is true that Finns are good in foreign languages, for in Finland 69% of the population can speak more than one foreign language, 47% at least two languages and 23% even three foreign languages. In Finland the foreign language skills are above the European average. The fact that in Finland there are two official languages has surely influenced the language attitudes. Anyway, the mother tongue of most Finns is Finnish (92%), so the country is more homogeneous linguistically than most of the European countries.
What foreign languages are the most common in Finland? It is not a surprise that nowadays English is the most common foreign language with 63%, Swedish being in second place with its status of official language (41%), while German comes in third place with 18%, being traditionally the most popular.
Even if Finland has Russia as its neighbour, Russian is not a popular language in schools, although it is one of the languages whose popularity is growing, with Spanish and Italian as second foreign language. German is often an alternative to English as the first foreign language in schools. We could say that the fact that Finland is now an EU member, is a reason why French is been chosen, given the important role of French in the EU.
Even though today a foreign language can be taken already at age 7, it is more common to start learning it when you are 9 years old. In 2002 only 6.2% of 7-year-olds started learning a foreign language. In contrary to the other Nordic countries, the comprehensive school has given from its beginning the possibility to start another foreign language than English. The possibility to choose French, German or Russian has been there already in 1970’s.
In Finland, it has always been clear that we should have a repertoire of languages in schools and the Finns have always been rather motivated to learn languages. The objectives that are topical in Europe this time around are not something new to Finnish people. Of the Europeans, it is in Sweden (32%), in Latvia (28%) and in Finland (28%) where we can find the most active language learners of the last two years.
Some existing problems
When it comes to the factors that can discourage language learning, it is surprising that Finland is one of the countries that are not very enthusiastic in learning a new language. In Europe, it is the lack of motivation and the lack of time that are the most usual reasons for not learning another language.
It seems that in Finland they learn Swedish a lot, though it is above all because it is a compulsory language in schools. Anyway, it seems that the Finns are not so interested in learning it. In addition, the obligation to learn Swedish makes it harder to start additional languages, for not everybody is going to start a third or a fourth language. It is true that we do acknowledge the importance of other languages; it seems that we are losing it for more and more students are learning only English and of course, Swedish.
Generally, in European countries English is most often the first foreign language taught in schools. In Finland the situation is the same. We are not used to learn some other language than English as the first foreign language. Anyhow, in Finland we really think that it would be very important to learn foreign languages so that we could better communicate with other nationalities.
In 2000, during the French presidency of EU, when many documents were sent from the France only in French, there was a problem because in Scandinavia, people had used to the documents in English.
At the same time when the status of English is getting better worldwide, we have found that French and German have an important position in Europe. Those that have French or German as their mother tongue, it is normal to suppose that their language is being used in international cooperation, when the Finns should actually know more than one foreign language.
A quick look at the past
The commission dealing with the language programme from 1976 to 1978 had a challenge to do a proposition of reform that was based on cultural politics and on the linguistic needs. This proposition included that everybody should know some Swedish and English. It included also that 30% of the population should learn German and Russian. French was recommended to 15-20% of the population.
They proposed also that in upper secondary school students should learn two foreign languages in addition to the two official languages. It is clear that the propositions were excessive but the commission studied a number of important questions such as : How many languages one should learn ? When should one start learning a language ? Which language would be the easiest for the Finns? How many hours should one study languages in a week ? Should the language be taught in a foreign language or in Finnish ? And so on.
These questions have created the basis for the education of languages in Finland and some of them come to consideration even today, and even more in the 90’s when new kinds of training programs were planned, for example the IB (International Baccalaureate).
Anyway, it seems that Finland was one of the first countries in Europe to pose these kind of questions. Besides, the educational objectives that concern all European countries since the 1990’s have been attained in Finland 20 years before.
In the 1980’s in secondary school, the objective was that at least 35% of students would chose one optional language. The Council of State was hoping that this language would more often be French or Russian. In upper secondary school, 80% of the students studied one optional language during the 1990’s.
That was good, but there was one problem: the unbalance of choice. This is the reason why the Ministry of Education National was preparing new objectives: teaching of German, French, Russian and Spanish should augment at all the educational levels. They thought that the cultural relations demanded language knowledge and the attitudes towards the European countries would be more positives if we knew their languages.
The students were encouraged to choose another language than English as their first foreign language, but actually we have been able to notice that English is the language that the students find the most important as first foreign language. In 90’s, students studied in upper secondary school on the average 2.7 foreign languages. Of the baccalaureates, girls passed ¾ of the optional language exams.
Linguistic projects in Finland
In Finland there are projects that try to develop and diversify the education of foreign languages and the methods used in education. One of the projects was “Kimmoke”  from 1996 to year 2000.
Russian is often been chosen for the regional motifs in the east of Finland, where there are commercial interests towards our eastern neighbour. When it comes to Swedish, the situation is very different in different regions so that Swedish has a strong position in the western coast of Finland, where students tend to choose Swedish as first foreign language.
In 2001 it was clear though, that all the objectives of the project Kimmoke had not been achieved. There was still not a possibility to start learning a second foreign language in all the communes. So they decided to launch another project that was based on national evaluation, called “Kieltenopetuksen kehittämishanke” that was a suite to project Kimmoke until year 2004.
The objective was to ensure the possibility to start another foreign language in elementary school and also the continuity of its education in higher levels. The project was to encourage more students to choose an optional language. This time the objectives have been reached as the popularity of a second language has grown and it has been possible to start learning a language earlier than before. There is still some imbalance, as the situation is very different from a commune to another.
The fact that we want more people to study a language other than English has lead to a situation where the classes of languages can be very small and if they are not big enough, the communes are not willing to provide the education for the marginal languages. This means that in small communes the education provided in other languages than English is very rare actually.
Even though the finnish people are motivated in learning foreign languages and they have relatively good language skills, there are still things that could be better.
The problem is that we don’t get to use the languages efficiently and it is difficult to learn the needed communication skills.One aspect on this problem is that at school we do not have much exercices where we get to use the langugae orally, and it is only when we go abroad that we learn to speak the language in the every-day situations.
This is why a decision has been made that in upper secondary schools a new course will be added as it would be necessary - not only to write but also to speak a language. Until now the matriculation examination has only been about the written language skills.