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Finland: Keep Swedish compulsory, say teachers

YLE NewsEye on the Arctic

Surveys show a majority of Finns would like to abolish the compulsory teaching of Swedish in Finnish schools.

If that proposal comes to fruition, the time freed up could be used for learning other languages -- but without compulsion, teachers fear Finns’ language skills would deteriorate.

A Taloustutkimus survey found that 63 percent of Finnish people would like to see Swedish studies in schools made optional. A citizens’ initiative advocating that is currently gathering signatures before it is presented to parliament, but the question of what to do with the time currently spent on Swedish teaching.

Teachers are concerned that pupils may avoid language tuition altogether if they are allowed to substitute Swedish for a non-language subject.

“If there is no requirement to choose another language in place of Swedish, the fear is that a lot of people will no longer study a language,” said Kari Jukarainen of the Finnish Language teachers association. “We would have a large group of pupils whose only foreign language is English.”

`No need' for mandatory Swedish

Optional language studies have been losing popularity among students for 15 years. The Vapaa Kielivalinta association, which campaigns for an end to mandatory Swedish in schools and proposed the citizens initiative to that end, does not see that as a problem.

“I’m of the opinion that the whole age group does not need to learn two foreign languages,” said the association’s vice-chair, Heikki Orsila. “That is not relevant. It’s more relevant to focus teaching hours so that they are as useful as possible.”

He offers pupils in vocational schools as an example of a group that finds Swedish less useful.

“For some it would be useful to learn something else,” said Orsila. “Language teachers are concerned that they will remain employed in the future. Basic schooling curricula cannot be organized around the employment of a few teachers. Teach children what they need!”

More teachers needed

Even if children are required to learn another language in place of Swedish, they may not be able to choose the one they prefer. That’s because there simply aren’t enough teachers in the Finnish system. The National Board of Education’s figures show that most language teachers specialize in English (around 2,300 teachers), Swedish (800), German (150) and French (70).

Most do have two or three languages in the repertoire, but the board’s figures reflect the subject they teach the most. They reveal a lack of competence in languages children might like to learn.

“If we talk about languages that are rare in Finland—but big in Europe—then there are not enough competent teachers in every place,” said Jukarainen. “There simply aren’t enough teachers.”

That means that for students in most of the country, a free choice of language learning would mean choosing Swedish, German or French.

“The selection will not improve by magic,” admitted Orsila. “It takes work. There has to be a will, and many things have to be done. Swedish teachers could halve in number from current levels if the topic became optional. They could teach other languages and other subjects.”

Specialists in the less common languages are hard to find in Finland. Those specializing in French, Russian, Spanish, Italian or Latin number just 175 in the whole country.

“If the social order remains the same, I don’t see any positive effects of making Swedish voluntary in the long run,” said Anu Halvari, counselor of education. “Swedish should be learned. We have a bilingual country. We need all kinds of people who can perform all kinds of tasks. Young people block off future possibilities, it is a big and scary topic for discussion.”

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.