Roughly fifteen years ago 3rd grade students in middle school were asked to pick a foreign language to study. Most of them, me included, picked English as their first foreign language but some picked German, French, Russian or some other language. Two years later the students had the option to choose another foreign language and some of the students who had picked English, picked some other language to study while the rest didn't. Then those who hadn't picked English as their first foreign language, most of them picked English this time. But there were some students who didn't pick English as their first or second foreign language.
English is not a mandatory language in Finland and even though over 99% of the students pick English at some point, there still are some people who don't pick it. But not learning English in school doesn't necessarily mean that they are going to be bad at it. English is recognized as a world language and almost everyone living in a welfare state sees and hears it every day. So even if it isn't learned at school, you can still learn it through everyday activities. Sadly the reverse is true as well. Even if you are taught at school, you still might not learn the language. Knowing English in modern world is probably one of the most important things. It helps if and when you meet foreign people even if your language skills aren't excellent. I'm sure that we all know someone who thinks they are better in English than they really are. Then there are those who just don't even try to learn or speak the language. Personally I appreciate people who, even though might not be the greatest at it, at least try their best (a good example: a japanese metal band Galneryus, just listen to their song ”In the cage” and try to figure out the lyrics without looking them up. They might not have the best pronunciation but they still try their best).
This Finland's situtation got me thinking how is it in other countries. Do native English speaking countries need to learn a foreign language? And what about other countries in Europe for example? Is it a culturar thing to learn English as the go-to foreign language or does other countries learn more other languages?
Learning a foreign language in Europe is mandatory almost in every country. Only Ireland and Scotland are exceptions to this. According to Eurostat in 2013, roughly 77% of primary school students in EU learn English as a foreign language and from upper secondary students over 94% students learn English, so you should be able to survive with just English in most of the countries if you were to go on a vacation. The latest students start learning a foreign language is by the age of 11 and that is in the UK. In Belgium they start the earliest, by the age of 3. Even in the UK where English is the native language, the students still learn a new language. But how about another English native country, the U.S.?
In the U.S. there is no nationwide mandate to learn a foreign language. Some high schools require the students to learn a new language but that means they start learning at the age of 14. Considering that U.S. considers itself as a multiculturar nation, it is baffling that they aren't required to learn any foreign languages. Not all schools even provide the option to teach a foreign language. Peronally I'm not all that surprised at this but that is another issue. Considering these facts, I feel pretty good about our education system. Comparing Europe to U.S. just by having people to learn foreign languages, europeans already have a better standing in the world. Learning a new language is a valuable skill and really useful as well.
Text by Jiri Musto, a student of Independent Study in English course