Friday, 17 October 2008

Englsh teaching in Finland(illustration from Meilahden secondary school)

It was a rather surreal experience meeting the English teacher, Riikka. As with other English teachers I met, they all sounded like native speakers, and had learnt their English in Finland. She only said she used to watch a lot of TV in English when she was young. (I have read and heard from various sources that the non-dubbing policy of foreign language programmes in Finland is a main reason why people's English standards are generally so high.)

But after having sat through an English class myself, I had a better idea of what it was that contributed to their success in English language teaching. As far as I can say there are a few reasons:

1. the high quality of English teachers. They learn from good examples, which is really important as imitation is always the first step in learning languages.

2. the appropriate curriculum and teaching materials: what they learn is directly applicable in daily life, thanks to the amazing publishing industry there. The authors and publishers are very enthusiastic about their work and liaise with teachers. I have read about how they could go through discussion meetings to revise the drafts by ten times.

It has very interesting topics like moving houses, pet, school, friendship like ‘what kinds of friends are you? what would you do if your friend told you a secret or you have promised your friend something?, shopping, music, sports, clothes, food, travel in the UK. I wish I had a book like that.

3. appropriate teaching method. They emphasise building a language immersion environment in primary school for kids to get used to the environment, and use it comfortably. More importantly, they adopt a communicative approach in establishing foundation by talking and listening, which makes the use of language alive. This has in fact been heavily criticised because it has been poorly implemented in many parts of the world.

Finland however does it differently in a way that strikes the right balance: they focus on grammar and groundwork in secondary schools. This suits children's general linguistic development quite well. Children first learn to use the language in daily life, and develop an interest in it. Then they learn the rules which consolidate their language skills and build a strong foundation.

Another special feature is they teach grammar with considerable Finnish. In Hong Kong, mixed code is frowned upon for fear that people can't speak either language well. (And I used to feel the same, but this trip has made me rethink!) It is a valid concern in many ways, but this begs the question - what kind of students are we catering for and what is the objective of language teaching?

Admittedly, if you want to be an amazing user of the language, you'd better learn to think in the language early on, and I agree with that completely. But not everyone needs to speak impeccably English.

I think Finland sets a realistic goal of ensuring that everyone understands the complexities within the English language. It may be too easy for some students and may interfere with one's linguistic development to a certain extent because of the use of another language. However, for many people, native tongue is the basis for learning to think and analyse. Resort to native tongue in teaching foreign languages can actually help students to grasp difficult concepts much more effectively than otherwise.

Having said that, the key is to understand the way native tongue is used in teaching foreign languages. It cannot be excessively relied on, and it shouldn't encourage any 'mixed' mumbo jumbo use of languages. I was impressed by the English teacher as she spoke each sentence exclusively in English first, and then in Finnish - as if she were playing the dual role of teaching and instantaneous self-interpreting. She hardly used any English word in a Finnish sentence and vice versa. So some food for thought!

1 comment:

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