Foreign Languages in Finland’s Educational System

, by Muusa Korhonen

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Foreign Languages in Finland's Educational System

The results of surveys show that the majority of Europeans learn languages only in school; this indicates the importance of the educational system in promoting the learning of languages in Europe. Finnish 15-year-olds were among the best in all four domains assessed by the PISA 2003 survey comprising 41 countries.

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” [1] 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.

- Image :

Stamp from Finland, from

- Links :

 The Finnish educational system.

 The Finnish language.

 The Swedish language in Finland.


[1Kimmoke was a project designed and implemented by the Finnish National Board of Education

Your comments
  • On 25 October 2006 at 16:36, by R Korhonen Replying to: Foreign Languages in Finland’s Educational System

    Dear readers, our family just visited Spain on our holiday week. We were rather shocked because people in Spain could not speak English. Neither young nor older people could not speak English at all. The only language to spanish people seem to be their own language spanish. We were surprised. Perhaps this is why they think they do not need any other languages at all. In Finland we are told how important language English is: You can use it in all Europe. Earlier I already knew that people in France only speak french and people in Germany only speak german...

  • On 26 October 2006 at 05:35, by mankso Replying to: Foreign Languages in Finland’s Educational System

    I don’t know which language this article was originally written in, but it is a very good example of the near-impossibility for a non-native-speaker to write prose in any ethnic language (including of course English!) which is immediately intelligible to a native-speaker. I don’t wish to embarrass the author (or the translator), but there were several sentences here which I (a native-speaker of English) had to read two or three times before I was able to grasp their meaning. Let one small example suffice: “the Finnish presidency of the EU is on the run,” I think this is not what the author intended to write. "On the run" means "fleeing away from something, probably after a defeat in battle." Surely "in progress" is what was meant? Idioms are indeed treacherous beasts!

    How can one overcome such problems? There is only one language known to me where fluency and accuracy are theoretically attainable by everyone, and that language is a NON-ethnic one, viz. Esperanto, the use of which treats all on an equal linguistic footing (and removes my unearned privileged position). Why is this fact so rarely mentioned? And everyone seems to know about the weekly 5-minute Latin broadcast from Finnish Radio YLE, but few seem to know about the Esperanto-language information published by the Finnish EU-presidency, or the daily 30-minute Esperanto broadcasts from Radio Polonia?

    Surely universal bilingualism [YOUR language + Esperanto, for everybody] is the ideal, most cost-effective solution and worth looking into? It is an already functioning reality, not a project. An English-only Europe is harmful to smaller languages - and besides, it makes me cringe when I have to read “EU English”! Please don’t massacre my language any more!

  • On 30 October 2006 at 16:39, by marco Replying to: Foreign Languages in Finland’s Educational System

    mmm....., I am not a native english speaker but I found the article immediately intelligible; even the sentece “the Finnish presidency of the EU is on the run”

  • On 5 November 2006 at 08:20, by xiphias Replying to: Foreign Languages in Finland’s Educational System

    Mankso: it is by no means a near-impossibility for a non-native speaker to write prose in a foreign language. I’m also Finnish and currently work in the UK -previously I worked in public relations (writing press releases) and also write in my current job. A lot of the time I have to correct the native speakers as the level of skill among (especially) English speakers is appallingly low. Perhaps we should start by getting the native English speakers to perfect their own skills...

  • On 5 November 2006 at 15:21, by krokodilo Replying to: Foreign Languages in Finland’s Educational System

    M. Korhonen; You said : “In Finland we are told how important language English is: You can use it in all Europe” Perhaps what you have been told was not true ? Your post has proven it, no ? Do you try to speak to them, in Spain, in other languages, catalan, french, esperanto, or any other language of the 6000 on earth ? english is not officially the lingua franca of the EU. Nor of the world. Regards.

  • On 6 November 2006 at 08:08, by Valéry Replying to: Foreign Languages in Finland’s Educational System

    I have travelled all over Europe and met hundreds of people and English hyas always been fine for me. I was able to have conversations with many people, most understood enough for me to communicate according to my needs. Only twice I was unable to find what I needed with English. However I have never seen a place proudly announcing “Esperanto spoken” on its door.

    English is lingua franca...

    Obviously I have noticed that citizens from the largest countries do not necessarily put all the necessary efforts to learn it properly while citizens from the smaller ones do most often - as far as I have noticed.

    I am not opposed to the idea of esperanto but it can only be usefukl if there is a political initiative to propote it and nowadays politicians have lost the habit to take bold political initiatives. I am therefore rather pessimistic.

    BTW I have been interested in learning esperanto myself : it is actually easy but still remains a significant amount of work and commitment... with little reward as it does not allow you to use it when you travel nor to access to a specific culture.

  • On 8 October 2007 at 23:20, by ? Replying to: Foreign Languages in Finland’s Educational System

    the article was pretty intelligible to me. well, perhaps English people can’t see the wood for the trees. but English is ligua franca and this (of course) has negative effects as well. sorry for using your language in such a ruthless way.

  • On 30 March 2008 at 00:52, by Lorie Replying to: Foreign Languages in Finland’s Educational System

    I am a native speaker and it was not difficult to read the article. The author writes infinitely better than many of my college peers. Colloquialisms plague all languages.

  • On 23 October 2009 at 18:03, by Staban Replying to: Foreign Languages in Finland’s Educational System

    Dear Mr Korhonen,

    When I travel abroad, I always learn a few basic words of the language or the country I am visiting. It is generalely quite useful as english is not spoken everywhere.

    I agree with Krokodilo, you should have tried to speak to Spanish people in spanish, french, catalan or esperanto.



  • On 31 July 2013 at 13:19, by Brunengilda Replying to: Foreign Languages in Finland’s Educational System

    Well, now it’s a different year: 2013. Here I am, trying to find a Chinese or Spanish speaking job in Finland; and especially since Chinese language is supposedly in vogue (and blah blah... seems only English speaking countries REALLY want to popularize Chinese language). It’s been rather impossible, I must tell you. No interest at all, but from a few people here and there who would like to learn Chinese for amateur purposes only (and thus are quite content with simply hiring a teacher on skype). I say, non-native English users make their best to communicate, maybe not to master the language and get creative. Aaand... No luck in Finland for me :(

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