by Brandon Wiley
Whatever language you speak, the “magic number” when is comes to languages in Finland seemed to be three. That is, every student I spoke to shared that they speak at least three languages. Most usually, students were conversant in Finnish, Swedish and English. In addition, we found many students who could speak French, German, Russian and at one school, Latin was still an offering. I must admit that this wasn’t much of a surprise to me, as I have come to learn that many students outside of the United States develop fluency in multiple languages, especially throughout Europe. Throughout our conversations (in English, I might add), I tried to get a better understanding of why the acquisition of multiple languages seemed to be an important part of the Finnish education system.
As part of the national core curriculum, a strong focus is placed on developing the “mother tongue” language skills and exploration of literature. Additionally, students are expected to focus on an A-language starting in grades 1 – 6 of compulsory education. A B-language is studied starting in grades 7-9. Often, English is taught during the early grades and is woven throughout coursework, with some classes taught exclusively in English. Despite the fact students do not start school until age 7, some families make an effort to begin this education prior to age 7. For example, we came across a ‘Finnish American” school that allows families to start students earlier than grade 1 and begins a focus on language acquisition at an early age.
Students seemed to understand the importance of learning multiple languages, especially English, and shared their views on the importance of learning different languages. Some of the perspectives shared were:
“We all need to learn English because it is the international language of business and law. It’s just necessary to learn it since it is used by so many countries, including, of course the United States.” – Grade 9 student
“I think it’s important for us to learn different languages so that we can be competitive and have an advantage in the future” – Grade 10 student
“Learning languages for me is really hard, but I think important. I want to travel some day and need to be able to speak to people.” – Primary student
“We incorporate world languages into our curriculum to help students understand the different cultures of the world. The curriculum is not simply to learn how to talk to others, but to better understand the way people live, work and think. Language is what binds us and connects us. But, if you aren’t fluent, it can also separate us.” – high school World Languages teacher
Understanding that the study and acquisition of languages plays a major role in the Finnish education system caused me to reflect on how this compares to the US system. Why does this matter? To my mind, it matters on two levels. First, I was once again struck by the Finnish emphasis on the “whole child” and providing a well-rounded curriculum and experience. In far too many American schools, world language is reserved for middle or high school coursework, with relatively few language immersion or early childhood language programs. In increasingly difficult economic times, more and more American schools are making cuts to world language programs or severely limiting the languages offered. It seems that it is more likely for U.S. schools to focus on helping students meet the minimum amount of language instruction necessary instead of thinking about how to maximize the number of languages students are fluent in before graduation. For a country as diverse and “cosmopolitan” as the United States, this stance seems very parochial and outdated. Through the study of languages, students engage in the study of cultures, customs and beliefs held by those different from themselves. Language instruction helps students develop a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives, history and expression. When students can master languages other than their native tongue, it opens a world of opportunities, helps overcome geographic and cultural barriers and generally makes interacting with others more enjoyable. In my last three trips outside of the United States, I did not speak the language of the host country I visited. I regret this and wonder how the experience could have been even richer had I been able to communicate authentically and fluently. In the spirit of developing the “whole child,” I wonder what would happen in the United States if language instruction was viewed as a “core content area?” (Answer: we’d probably test it to death.)
The second reason I think a focus on world language instruction matters is the competitive advantage it will give students in the 21st century. As graduates enter a highly competitive global world, they will be vying for admission to the same colleges/universities and applying for the same jobs. Even if all other things are equal, having limited language proficiency outside of English will be a competitive disadvantage for many American students. This focus on language instruction isn’t just happening in Finland. In a recent trip to China, I visited a school with over 5,000 students, all of whom were working hard to master their English speaking and writing skills. Their goal – attend U.S. colleges and universities beyond high school. Students around the world are developing language skills, yet the policy and funding in the United States seems to be lagging in this area.
As a side note, I’d like to give credit to our PennFinn13 colleagues, Jennifer, who spent several months leading up to our trip learning Finnish. She was an invaluable member of the team due to her ability to get us important information about bus schedules, menu options and basic interaction with the locals. However, we quickly learned that most everyone we encountered, whether in restaurants, grocery stores or on public transportation, spoke English extremely well. Jennifer spent time listening to podcasts in her car as she drove to/from work and longer excursions before departing for Helsinki. (Rumor has it that she could be seen talking to herself in Finnish at times!) Not only was her commitment to learning the language impressive, it made a real difference in our overall experience in the country. She has inspired me to study another language now and look forward to the challenge and benefit it will bring to my life. Stay tuned….