Foreign language study in elementary schools in Finland

When I was growing up, the first time I got to take a foreign language at school was in 7th/8th grade. It was an introductory Spanish class and I loved it. Once I started high school, I had the choice of Spanish, French, German, or Japanese. I chose Japanese and studied it for all four years. I am grateful for the choices that were available and the option I had to study a language for more years than was required by the curriculum (two years, at the time).

Here in Finland, the educational system favors students learning languages at a younger age. My daughters go to a bilingual school where they are already studying English as an immersion language in the classroom (for my daughters it's kind of the other way around - Finnish is the immersion and English is the native language!). In addition to English, however, the children have the option of studying another foreign language starting in 4th grade. Magdalena will be in 4th grade next year, and the choices available to her are Spanish, French, German, Swedish, or Russian.

This 4th-grade language study is elective. However, in 6th grade (which Miriam will be enter next year), Swedish becomes a mandatory subject. Those students who have already been studying Swedish since 4th grade can choose another language instead and continue their advanced study of Swedish in the meantime. This means that it's possible for a 6th-grader to be studying English, Swedish, and (for example) Russian.

Needless to say, I am a big fan of this model where students encounter foreign language study at a very young age. Magdalena has chosen Spanish as her first choice for next year and Russian as her second choice. We'll see what she ends up getting into. It was so hard to put that choice in her hands and keep my own opinions out of it. Not that I would discourage her from learning Spanish - not at all! - but that I kind of wish I was eight years old again and getting to choose to study one of those five languages.

Miriam's situation is a little different - we declined the 4th grade foreign language elective in 2015 because we had just moved here and Finnish was plenty to deal with at first. Now that she is feeling a little more settled in that language, she'd like to pick up German next year. Of course, that would be in addition to the Swedish they'll be starting. We still need to discuss this a bit with her and her teacher.

So next time you wonder how all these Europeans in general and Finns in particular are such brilliant communicators in so many languages, now you know at least one of the reasons: they start early! 

(PS, it's possible I've missed some nuance of the system here since the explanatory letter from the school was all in Finnish. It's also possible that things are done differently at different schools. The bilingual school, at least, does things this way. I seem to recall hearing that Swedish study starts earlier at other schools. But this is the basic idea.)

Church street

Church street

Technology in the olden days

Technology in the olden days