Voices of history shape language skills

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 March, 2005, 12:00am

History and necessity have shaped Finland into a nation of linguists.

Unlike in many larger European countries, it is hard to find anyone who cannot communicate in English. But linguistic abilities do not stop there. The country is officially bilingual, with Swedish joining Finnish as the official language, and many others thrive too.

Swedish has a long history in Finland. Rather like English in Hong Kong, it was for many years the dominant official language as Finland was under Swedish rule for close to 800 years, from medieval times until 1809, when it was forced into the Russian empire.

Today the Swedish influence remains, with about 6 per cent of Finns being Swedish-speaking. Swedish-speaking children have the right to receive all their education in their mother tongue. All Finns are required to learn Swedish as their second 'domestic' language while in Swedish-speaking schools Finnish is compulsory.

Respect for other languages is also a part of official policy. Mother tongue education is provided to the Sami-speaking minority in the far north of Lapland and the many new immigrants are entitled to up to two hours a week of education in their own languages, as well as special support in learning Finnish.

Across the country there are dozens of well-established Swedish-medium schools, like Svenska Normallyceum in Helsinki.

'The Swedish schools are older than the Finnish because the Swedish tongue had the upper level until the last decade of the 19th century. The whole culture of instruction came from the West via Swedish education,' said Erik Geber, an official at the Board of Education whose job it is to keep the Swedish tradition alive by ensuring schools have access to curriculum materials in the language.

But mastering the two languages is not easy as they come from very different linguistic groups - Swedish is an Indo-European language with similarities to German and English. Finnish belongs to the Fenno-Ugric group of languages, and is said to have more in common with Hungarian than Swedish. Swedish-speakers growing up in monolingual areas of the country, with no exposure to Finnish beyond their school language lessons, struggle to speak the language, according to Mr Geber.

For non-native speakers, Finnish presents the added challenge of being very different in its written and spoken forms - like Cantonese it is highly colloquial.

But with the most phonetic writing system in the world, Finnish is relatively easy to learn to read and write which, for native-speakers, which partly explains why they can learn to read so quickly.

Most Finns take language-learning in their stride. Not only must they learn the two domestic languages, but foreign languages are also important. In upper secondary school, all students have to learn a foreign language - usually English - to advanced level and many take an additional language to 'B-level'. At the upper secondary Gymnasiet Svenska Normallyceum, English, German, French and Latin are taught and Spanish and Russian are offered in co-operation with other schools.

Unlike in some larger European countries, Finns are eager to learn other languages in order to communicate with those in other countries. Andreas Palmborg, English teacher at Svenska Normallyceum, said: 'People in Finland are very interested in foreign languages, because we realise Finnish and Swedish are marginal languages. People are proud to show off their English.' Some major companies, such as Nokia, even use English as their working language.

The prevalence of English language television also helped, he said. Imported programmes were not dubbed but transmitted with subtitles. Finns' spoken English was, as a result, usually stronger than their written.

The pressure of globalisation has raised questions about the continuing role of Swedish. Priority is often given to English and many young Finnish-speakers question why they have to learn Swedish, which they do not need to use in their daily lives.

In Jakomaki Comprehensive School, for instance, English is taught from Grade Three (age 10) while Swedish is introduced only at Grade Seven.

Mikael Nyholm, principal of Svenska Normallyceum, dismisses any suggestion that Swedish should belong to history as a medium of instruction and compulsory second language. 'The Swedish room is getting smaller and smaller. Schools are the last castle. For me it is important to fight for it,' he said.

He is confident that Finns from both linguistic cultures can master many languages. 'Students have no problem in learning three languages. They should also learn German, French, and Russian.'

The latter is the most-disliked of foreign languages, with Finland's conflict with Soviet forces during the Second World War and the post-war years of being under Soviet influence still alive in many people's memories.

But Mr Nyholm says Russian is important for the future, because of the vast business opportunities developing across the border.