Language Immersion: What We Can Learn From Finland


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As I am taking administration courses towards my credential to become an educational leader, I  find myself constantly arriving at this question: How can we bridge the gap between students whose first language is English from those who are defined as English language learners (ELL)?

Students come to our schools with a variety of life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and languages learned at home.  Students come to us from other countries and are placed in a grade level based on their age, regardless of their understanding of English.  The problem with this approach is the student is not only having to learn the new language but also keep up with content being taught in English.  This kind of experience is very difficult, which our test scores show, as well as the number of students not graduating out of these language programs they are placed in.  By not acclimating them to classes taught in English before learning content, we do them a huge disservice and unintentionally set them up for failure.

I greatly admire Finland for not only the freedom teachers have and the respect the profession gets from the public, but also the way Finland approaches language acquisition.  According to Jessica Shepherd’s article, Immigrant Children Benefit from Finnish Educationshe says that, “…getting children whose first language is not Finnish up to the high standards of their classmates – appears to have been overlooked by the education tourists.”

So, what do they do differently that we can learn from?

Students whose primary language is not Finnish are given a teacher and an assistant teacher that work with them 25 hours a week on basic Finnish language in all subjects except sports and arts.  Shepherd (2011) states that, “It can be anything between six months and a year before they are judged to have mastered Finnish and are ready to be placed into their correct year group.”  The article goes on to say that state dollars are used specifically for students whose native language is not Finnish to have language classes before class and after class.

“Helsinki’s education department estimates that just over 11,000 pupils – almost 2% – have state-funded tuition in a mother tongue that isn’t Finnish, before or after their other classes.” Shepherd (2011)

No matter their age, students are placed into these intensive language immersion classes until they have mastered the language.  That is their only focus.  Once the language is mastered, students are then ready to learn the content at their level.

Why, you ask, are we not doing this?

Finland’s government recognizes the importance of supporting those students that need the most help.  Although we disperse money in much the same way, our education system does not have a clear vision as to how to increase the success of these individuals.  We have yet to come up with solutions that have made the kind of gains that Finland demonstrates.

“Finland, on the other hand, has had what it describes as a “positive discrimination” policy since the 1990s. It gives schools extra funds if they are situated in relatively poor areas or have a disproportionately high number of children with special needs. It tops up these funds with €1,000 (£875) a year for each child on the school’s roll who has lived in Finland for less than four years.” Shepherd (2011)

So there you have it.  What seems like an obvious way of helping our ELL populations in the states does not get the attention it deserves.  We throw a lot of money towards helping our ELLs with programs and curriculum, but none of these options addresses the real issue – you can’t expect a child to succeed academically if they can’t understand the language in which they are being instructed.  If only our policy makers and state education departments would look at other successful programs, such as Finland’s, to give our most needy students a powerful start to their educational success.

Do you have any thoughts about the article?  How does your school approach ELL education?  Thanks for your comments and/or questions!


Published by scotthollandwilson

I am an educator in California for the past 10 years. Currently I am working on my Masters in Administration. I believe in giving students real life application to assignments. Follow me on twitter @mrwilson218

2 thoughts on “Language Immersion: What We Can Learn From Finland

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