By Josephine Moate, Senior lecturer, University of Jyväskylä

29 January 2021 - 16:30

School in Finland
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Josephine Moate, senior lecturer, at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland tells us about the Finnish education system and compares the Welsh and Finnish approaches to language learning.

In this blog I draw on my experience of language and languages as part of the Finnish education landscape, and highlight some similarities with the situation in Wales. Before I start, may I say I whole heartedly applaud the new Welsh curriculum.

Language education in Finland

Finnish is the first language of most children in Finland and Swedish is the first language of just over 5 per cent of the population.  At the latest Finnish children begin studying their first additional language, usually English, during the first grade of school (7-8 years old). In recent years significant efforts have been made to introduce different languages into early childhood education. Some projects have supported the take-up of languages other than English in the first grade. In the city of Tampere, for example, the Kikatus project introduced preschool children (ages 6-7) to seven different languages - English, French, Spanish, German, Russian and Chinese The project successfully encouraged a greater number of children to study a language other than English in the first grade. 

In grade 4 (10-11 years old) Finnish children can choose to study a third language. If there are enough students a group will be established with language education provided until the end of 9th grade (15-16 years). Children in Finland start to study the other national language, Finnish or Swedish, at the latest in grade 6 (12 -13 years). During grades 7-9 (13-15 years) other languages can be studied as part of short or long optional studies. In high school (usually 16-18 years) students can again choose to study another language and all students in higher education are obliged to complete courses in Finnish, Swedish and an additional language. So, there are a myriad of opportunities to study languages as part of the educational landscape in Finland.

Research demonstrates the value of broader language repertoires 

As bilingual nations both Finland and Wales want to make the most of their bilingual heritage and recognize the wider value of languages, and the need for children to develop wider language repertoires and to be plurilingual. In both countries, there is a significant shift taking place as languages are no longer regarded as separate parts of the curriculum, but recognized as part of the living community of schools and wider society. 

This doesn’t mean that everyone should learn the same languages, but that there is a perceived need and place in society for a wide range of languages and language competences. In both countries, I think, there is also a significant shift taking place, in that languages are no longer regarded as separate parts of the curriculum, boundaried by specific slots for language learning, but are recognized as part of the living community of schools and vital tools for engaging and developing in different ways in education.

This significant shift is recognized as a community effort in both Finland and Wales. This is not a change that can be mandated, although policy clearly helps. This is a change that is taking place at the grassroot level, as demographic populations diversify, as heritage languages are recognized as vital resources personally and economically, and as political changes are felt at different levels of society. 

Research demonstrates the value of broader – not narrower – language repertoires, that strengthen creative thinking, conceptualization, cognitive flexibility and critical thinking. To really benefit from the rich language resources that are part of the educational landscape, policy makers, funding bodies, educational authorities, practitioners, parents and students have to be involved, each contributing from their own vantage point. I think that this is a remarkable characteristic, of both the Finnish and Welsh educational landscape, that this shared endeavour is actively pursued.

Different languages construe the world in different ways 

This shift, however, also requires a new way of understanding language – as a phenomenon and as a multiplicity or plurality. Languages are not just equivalent ways of understanding the world. Terms are not just swapped between one language and another. If I say käsi in Finnish, I indicate that from the shoulder to the tip of my fingers are one entity, yet in English I never refer to an arm-hand. My point, however, is that different languages construe the world in different ways and valuing different languages gives us more resources for making sense of and understanding the world and each other. In effect, language mediates our participation in the world, our understanding and relationships in significant ways; it isn’t just choosing an alternative ‘tube’ to send a message down. The choice of language changes the quality and content of the message, as well as the experience that it fosters and the world it creates.

We can think of a lingua franca as a motorway, strategically built, fast to travel on and completely ignorant of the environment that it cuts through. The priority is to get from one place to another, and the in-between needs to be as straightforward as possible. For long journeys, motorways can be useful but for visiting local shops, regional community centres, neighbours and friends, motorways are more problematic than helpful. Heritage languages are more like highways and byways that have been formed through the shape of the land and the need to live and work alongside others. These languages connect generations, strengthen social relationships, enable neighbourhoods and communities to thrive alongside one another. Heritage languages share the story of who we are and keep the story going from one generation to the next. 

Finland and Wales are at a most exciting moment

Foreign languages are passageways beyond the boundaries of ourselves and our localities, regions and nations. Modern foreign languages are opportunities to see with new eyes, to explore with new words, to build new relationships that bring cultural and economic benefits. Foreign languages recognise that there are others out there that have different ways of relating to and understanding the world. As we learn and engage with the languages of others, we gain a better sense of self, a richer understanding of the world and more opportunities for further engagement with others.

I would suggest that Finland and Wales are at a most exciting moment, turning to, indeed writing - new chapters in their own stories that are as exciting for the authors as the reader!

Some areas are bilingual, some multilingual, some monolingual

I would like to share one practical example. I belong to a national project that aims to develop a map and compass for innovative language education in Finland. We have been gathering examples of innovative practices from educators across Finland, that support the use and development of language and languages in early childhood and basic education. We recognise though, that the educational and linguistic landscape varies across the country. Some areas are more bilingual, some multilingual, some seemingly monolingual. Some teachers are more used to teaching languages, for others this is a significant change. In addition to teaching more languages and to younger children, language-aware approaches should be adopted across the curriculum. 

With these variations, we cannot just transplant approaches from one context to another and expect them to work, but what we can do is to learn from and with one another. Hearing about the experiences of others, provides more options for the development of one’s own educational practice. Having a kind of compass to draw on – an understanding of why we learn languages, how to support language development and the value of languages as part of our communities – means that we can make meaningful changes to the approaches of others, making them suitable for our own communities, in effect enriching our local environments and investing in the healthy diversity of a wider community.

It seems to me that a similar project is taking place nationwide in Wales. In some ways the new map has already been drawn up with the new curriculum, developed through community efforts and a shared vision. I daresay that the compass is still being formed, but if that means that educators, policy makers and other educational stakeholders have to keep the wider conversation going, I would say that is all for the good.

Josephine Moate, senior lecturer, University of Jyväskylä, Finland

Josephine Moate

Senior lecturer, University of Jyväskylä