Language and learning languages have been a central concept in our society for hundreds of years. Language has been a means of communication, and there are approximately 7,139 spoken languages alive today. But if languages are so important to humans, why is their popularity in studies decreasing? Why aren’t students studying languages anymore?
I love languages. I don’t necessarily love all aspects that go with studying them, but I do like learning them. If I could choose, I’d be fluent in at least 5 languages. The hard reality however is that I can barely speak 2 languages fluently. It is an inside joke in my family that my first language is "finglish" because every third word in my sentences is in English. As a person who loves languages, I’ve come to notice that only a few people share my passion for languages.
In primary school, most of us probably chose some foreign languages. For me, those languages were English and Swedish. Later in middle school, we were presented with the possibility of starting a third language. I once again picked one, Spanish. I chose spanish whilst I was still living in Sweden, and due to this was put to A2 Spanish. In Kulosaari A level Spanish wasn’t popular, as you could see from the 4 students that made up my Spanish group. When high school started, many chose once again a foreign language. In Kulosaari, we had the option of starting with Spanish, French, Russian, German or Korean. I chose German. So, in total, I study 5 languages, 4 of which are foreign.
It’s now been well over a year since I started my German classes, and I have made some observations along the way:
Observation 1: Starting a B3 language is not nearly as popular as I thought it would be.
Observation 2: Most people are not willing to continue studying the language after the first year.
Observation 3: Only a few study languages beyond the compulsory English and Swedish.
At the beginning of the first year, our B3 German group had around 17 students. Now one course into the second year of studies, there are only 11 of us left. On top of that, 5 first year students studying A-level German were combined with our group. As a result of the decreasing popularity in studying languages, there weren’t enough of them to form their own group.
The decrease in students studying foreign languages is largely caused by two different factors: time and energy.
For many, the second year of studies in high school is dedicated to studying subjects that you like and the subjects that you’re going to matriculate. Due to this, most don’t prioritize languages. In my original plans for the second year, I did not think I’d continue with German. It would take 3 courses from my schedule, which I could have spent studying biology and history. Then I decided to not matriculate in biology, and German was put back on the table of possibilities.
I also feel that the current school system doesn’t support studying languages, or artistic subjects for that matter. The Korean/Chinese/Japanese courses are in block 91, which starts at 16:00 and ends at 17:45. For most, the late ending is more than just demotivating and hence discourages the students from taking the class. The courses are spread unevenly, creating a gap between the active learning periods, meaning time during which students end up forgetting what they’ve learned in the previous courses. This would never happen for example in long maths, where there’s at least one course in each period.
Students are also discouraged from studying new languages based on the requirements that universities have. When applying to medical or law school this year, students could only get 22,6 points from a Laudatur in a B3 language. An A level language could only give you 28,3 points if you got an L, whilst from long maths students could potentially get 39.7 points for an L. This fact is extremely important for example in our school, where many are headed to medical or law fields of study after graduation.
Matriculation exam grades, and the points given for them, source: https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-11970660
Helsingin Sanomat published an article at the beginning of the year regarding language studies at schools. In this article HS did a comparison on the difference of language matriculation exams in 1997 and 2020. According to it 18326 high school students matriculated in different B3 languages in 1997. Most popular languages were German, French, Spanish and Russian. In 2020, the number had decreased to 3 903 students. The most notable difference was in German and French matriculations. In 1997, 12 411 students had matriculated in B3 German. In 2020, the total was 1611.
Many subconsciously believe that it is unnecessary to study languages beyond English. The phrase “But everyone speaks English!” is often heard. Many feel that for example Swedish is useless and difficult, but are still studying the language due to the mandate.
Our society is so focused on pushing people towards the more “important” subjects, that we don’t regard studying languages as anything exciting. It has become such a standard to be able to speak Finnish and English, that even educators and employers don’t regard it as anything out of the ordinary or noteworthy.
“Many language teachers no longer see English as a language skill but as a civic skill.”
- a translated quote from the Helsingin Sanomat article.
Our lack of interest regarding this issue has resulted in even fewer options for languages offered at schools. Many municipalities don’t let children decide what the second language they start at school is but automatically teach English.
I think it’s quite sad that learning languages isn't popular anymore. Our curiosity regarding the skills and the cultures behind languages is decreasing, and there isn’t anyone who’s trying to change it.
Teksti: Daniela Wärnhjelm