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I went to talk to one of the developer teachers, Ms. Pauliina Kanervo, at the Culture and Education Department of City of Oulu. I wanted to hear more about children’s foreign language learning in the Oulu area primary and secondary schools. Pauliina has years of language teaching experience and she has also been part of the team to write English-language learning textbooks in Finland.
Pauliina Kanervo who has also been one of the Go for it! English-language textbooks authors
The foreign language offering in the Oulu area schools is quite wide, from English to German, French, Spanish and Swedish to mention the most popular languages. English still dominates the foreign language learning in Finnish schools and in the Oulu area too. In Oulu area English lessons start on the second grade (at the age of 8), whereas different regions can choose to start it on either on the second or third grade, and English is the first foreign language learned. Learning English is a natural thing to today’s children, as the English language has, in a way, become the second language in Finland. Today’s children are surrounded by the English language in their lives; the internet, social media, television, music… all are dominated by English-language content that children in Finland learn to use from early on. You will also need English in the working life later on. Both children and parents understand the meaning of learning English, as it has become a key tool in today’s world.
On the 5th grade, there is a choice to start a voluntary extra language, and in the Oulu region the most popular language has been German for years and the second most popular nowadays is Spanish. On the 6th grade, children start the compulsory Swedish studies (Swedish is the other official language in Finland). On the 8th grade, there is yet another option to add one more voluntary language into your studies.
An example of English-language learning material series for primary school students by the Finnish publisher SanomaPro.
Why is language learning in Finland of so high-quality?
Pauliina raised two main reasons. The first is the professional and extremely well-educated language teachers in Finland. The second is the high-quality language learning materials, textbooks and workbooks, digital books and modern tools like online material which offer gaming environments and other electronic material for learning, materials which all have taken many man-years to develop and create, and it is the teachers that have been developing the material as they know children and their needs in practice, not only publishers. Also the focus is on using the language and speaking it during the lessons, rather than just doing written exercises or passively learning. The new national curriculum in Finland also wants to bring joy, creativity, gaming, play and drama into teaching. Students are encouraged to actively take part during the lessons via many different exercises. Also for young students in the second grade who are just starting their English studies, the focus is on verbal skills, listening and speaking the language, writing English words correctly is secondary.
Bingel gaming environment for learning e.g. Maths, foreign languages and Finnish
Amaya using an online learning environment for her homework
What makes language learning effective in Finland?
We both agreed that it is the fact that today’s children live in an environment where they can hear and use English in their everyday life. Today’s children learn to use English in the social media (e.g. when they use YouTube or other apps), music is dominated with English songs and on the TV many popular TV shows are from the English-speaking countries and are shown in Finland without dubbing. This all surely supports English-language learning.
What motivates children to learn foreign languages?
Learning a foreign language has to be meaningful for the child, says Pauliina. It has to have a relevance in one’s everyday life in some way. In Finland, it is easy for children to see the importance of English language as it’s everywhere around them in today’s everyday life. I also think that parents’ attitude and support (not pressuring) is also an important factor in motivating children to learn something.
I as a parent encourage Amaya’s English-language learning by buying her English children’s books
Language learning is not the only tool which makes today’s children global citizen (also other things such as cultural and religious education about other countries and students’ exposure to other students from other countries in their daily life matter a lot), but perhaps it is still the most important peace in the puzzle. Global citizens learn to communicate with people from other parts of the world without big difficulties online and face-to-face which makes understanding unfamiliar and new easier.
Monika Luukkonen is a Finnish lifestyle expert and she writes books about the Finnish way of life for the Asian market.