Nowadays, when it comes to foreign languages, Finns typically think that English is enough. This view has already become a worrisome statistical fact. According to the Finnish National Agency for Education (Halvari, 2019), broad language skills (studies in more than two foreign languages) may soon be just a passing tradition. Whereas in 2005 more than 18,000 upper secondary school leavers chose a second foreign language for their matriculation examination, in 2019 the corresponding number had dropped to 3,900 students. Basic-syllabus studies in a second foreign language are chosen by only a quarter of students at general upper secondary schools and advanced-syllabus studies by less than a fifth. Furthermore, not all of these students take this subject in the matriculation examination.

Limited language skills are already evident in the Finnish labour market.

A decade ago almost all job applicant CVs stated not only Finnish, Swedish and English in the language skills section, but also at least one other foreign language. Today, the trend is sadly monotonous: Finnish (mother tongue), English (excellent or good), Swedish (good or poor). Thus far, most people now in working life went to school at the time when everybody studied two foreign languages besides the other national language, but now most of the new entrants to the labour market have studied only English as a foreign language beside the national ones. Many enterprises have found the situation hopeless for their recruiting purposes, because there is simply a lack of competent applicants with adequate language skills.

Limited language skills are therefore not only a problem for the individual but also a crucial issue for the whole nation. Abroad, English is widely spoken, and it is the predominant language of international science. However, to understand various parts of the world more deeply, we need a broader language repertoire, since in Finland we cannot base our understanding of the world solely on the Anglo-Saxon world’s interpretations of news received from different countries.

Is it even possible to think that our Russian correspondent could not follow the media in Russian?

Or that we would interpret the developments in the Middle East on the basis of English-speaking newscasts alone? Media communication based on information received from English news only (or exclusively from any other foreign language source) may include crucial translation errors and be prone to certain biases deriving from the set of values being represented.

Finland’s success has been based on equality and the accessibility of education across society. The current trend, however, suggests there are increasing regional differences in the opportunities to study a broader set of languages. Is it so that language skills are becoming an asset of inequality among citizens in the same way as literacy used to be in the past? In the past, literacy made society more unequal by separating the elite in power from the illiterate folk.

A prospect for the coming years might be that broad language skills have a similar effect: students at large schools in big cities can acquire multifaceted language skills and get an advantage in the labour market over those who never had such a choice.

We who work in the field of language teaching should also look in the mirror. Has language teaching kept up with the developments of the changing world well enough? Is language teaching still meaningful and significant to young people or has it remained too reliant on linguistic correctness and the vocabulary–grammar dimension, for instance? Are languages in teaching still too much separate from content, other languages and one’s mother tongue? Is the aim still set at native-speaker pronunciation, and is language still seen too much as something that could and should be mastered perfectly? Have we as language teachers created an image of a demanding school subject that calls for hard long-term work, which does not entice young people to opt for languages?

The Ministry of Education and Culture has also woken up to the situation. In 2017, a large study on the national language pool and the state of language learning was conducted. It led to recommendations (in Finnish) for national actions. Among these was the proposal that a second foreign language be included as a compulsory component in all university degrees. Yet forcing people to do something is not always a working solution and here at the University of Jyväskylä the situation is reasonably good without such a policy. Many of our students participate in language studies other than the communication and language studies required for their degree, and they have adopted a multilingual approach to their own internationalisation. In addition, language studies as one’s major or minor subject are still a popular option. Nationally, the University of Jyväskylä is distinguished in both aspects.

Most often, the language of science is English and many researchers and experts publish their findings and give presentations primarily in English.

Nonetheless, international networking, accessing original data and information sources, and reading primary literature call for considerably broader language skills.

Now that the university curricula are being revised it would be important to consider in detail the needs for content from outside one’s own discipline and take into account our increasingly international academic operating environment. When discussing with students, it is worth stopping and thinking so that one wouldn’t fall into easy statements of authority regarding the importance of language skills, but instead think about things more broadly and diversely while encouraging students to learn languages in support of their own academic future. This would be responsible conduct in our role as education providers.

Peppi Taalas
Adjunct Professor, Director
Centre for Multilingual Academic Communication

Anne Pitkänen-Huhta
Professor, Vice-dean
Department of Language and Communication Studies

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