Saturday, June 1, 2013

Living in a land full of linguists

In the United States most children are not given a choice to begin studying a second language until high school.  Sure, English is the national language in the US, but doesn't it make sense to start exposing our children to more languages at an early age?  I have to admit that I do have some regret about not having been taught any additional languages in my early years.  I was not exposed to any other languages until I started learning Spanish during my sophomore year in high school.  There are proven studies that learning a second or third language is much more effective when it is started before age of 7 or 8.

In Finland, it is mandatory for all kids to start learning a second language in 3rd grade.  In elementary school, most children learn both English and Swedish (Finland's 2nd national language) as second and third languages, respectively.  The third language is usually started at the 7th grade, and many children elect to start a fourth language at 8th grade.  So, by the time most children graduate from high school they are usually fluent in 3 or more languages. Since they start taking these language classes when they are fairly young, they build a solid base and much of the learning is preserved.  It is much harder to learn and retain a language when you start much later in life.  I am amazed everyday at how easily people switch between languages.  In my workplace we have several people who speak English, Swedish and Finnish in their daily interactions and they don't struggle at all. I also have some co-workers who speak German, Spanish, French, Romanian and Dutch.

In the United States, educators and parents might think that there is no point in learning additional languages because our only official language is English, but I think they are missing the point. There is strong learning and growth in the brain when we study and pick up additional languages and that training has been proven to facilitate other areas of learning.  There are only positive benefits of learning additional languages, and I think many American educators and parents might be short-sighted in their way of thinking.  Hopefully, in the future things will change and there will be an increased acceptance of learning additional languages in the United States.  I know that Spanish is becoming increasingly more important to learn, especially in my home state of California.  They really should require a second language like Spanish or French in grammar school; I think the benefits would be priceless.

My son, who moved to Finland at age 5 has learned the difficult Finnish language fluently after just under one year of living here.  He had heard a little bit of Finnish as a child, but had never spoken a word before we moved to Finland.  We basically did the immersion method, just placing him in an all Finnish school.  The teachers were very good about first explaining things in English and then switching to Finnish.  But, after 7 or 8 months they no longer had to use any English and switched to only Finnish.  Knowing how difficult the Finnish language is, I was amazed how quickly he learned.  He is even twisting most of the words correctly and in Finnish they have approximately 15 different cases for nouns.  One neat thing is that if you learn 2 languages early enough you will not have an accent in any of the languages and they will both sound natural and native.   At age 5 the brain is a sponge absorbing everything that is thrown at it, and kids learn fast.  I am glad that he was able to have this experience of learning another language at a young age. 


  1. Strangely enough, I learnt recently that there is no official language in the US (i.e. none mandated at the federal level). Some, but not all States do have an official language though (indeed some have more than one). California is one such State: English is the official language there.

  2. "they are usually fluent in 3 or more languages."

    That's quite a stretch. Most kids become relatively proficient in English and the kids who are exposed to Swedish outside of the school may learn to actually speak it at a useful level. For the majority, the second and third foreign languages are things they studied in school and then forgot.