Knowledge of Finnish language getting rustier among Estonians
English and elective studies eat into former popularity of Finnish
"Mäyräkoira (dachshund, sausage dog) and rantavalas (beach whale)”, says Madean Altsoo, who teaches Finnish in Estonia, trying out some newly-learned Finnish slang expressions.
So what do they mean?
“Well, a dachshund refers to a 12-pack of beer, and a beach whale is a man with a kind of white beer-belly hump in front of him. The opposite of an Adonis”, clarifies comprehensive school teacher Marika Holma from Pärnu.
Holma and Altsoo visited Helsinki last week to get acquainted with Finnish culture, together with twenty or so other Finnish teachers from Estonia.
The five-day visit was funded by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. Apparently the Finnish authorities have become concerned about the declining level of Finnish skills in Estonia.
It is fair to say that the studying of Finnish is at a low ebb in the Estonian comprehensive schools.
As late as in the mid-1990s there were still nearly 3,900 children and young adults in Estonia who studied Finnish. Last year their number was recorded at a mere 1,037.
The attractiveness of Finnish has been eaten into by the growing selection of elective studies and the ever-increasing popularity of English.
And the number of contact hours it not large either: on the upper secondary level one can only study Finnish as the third or fourth foreign language, and only for one hour per week.
On the comprehensive school level Finnish is not taught at all, except in one school in Pärnu, where Finnish is studied in the so-called study-circle classes.
In the country’s trade schools, around one and a half thousand pupils take Finnish classes.
“In the past, students had learned the basics of spoken Finnish through watching Finnish television programmes, and in the classes we concentrated on the grammar”, says Altsoo, who has taught Finnish in an upper secondary school for twenty years. “Today I get new students who do not know one word of Finnish, not even ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ “.
Also the older generation’s knowledge of Finnish is getting rustier, as the Finnish television has no longer acted as a language tutor - and as a clandestine "window on the west" during Soviet times - in Northern Estonia for a couple of decades.
The weakening knowledge of Finnish shows up for example in business life. The younger generation, in particular, is eager to switch to English, explains Pasi Harttunen, chairman of the Finnish-Estonian Chamber of Commerce.
“It is no coincidence that for example on the ferries operating between Finland and Estonia there are no workers in their twenties”, Harttunen says.
The situation may change, however. In the autumn of 2011 a new syllabus will come into force, according to which Finnish can be taught as the second language from the sixth form onwards and up to nine hours per week.
The schools have been given until the autumn of 2013 to adapt themselves to the new syllabus.
Nevertheless, no dramatic rush is expected into the Finnish classes.
According to cultural secretary Järvi Lipasti from the Finnish Institute in Estonia, the increase in teaching Finnish is dampened for example by the shortage of study material and teachers.
At present Finnish is studied in private schools, in particular. According to the Institute around 30 language schools have between two and three thousand students studying Finnish.
“Most of them want to work in Finland”, explains Irma Saares, who teaches Finnish in the Studia Lingua school in Tartu. The students include for example construction workers and bus drivers.
The number of doctors and nurses interested in working in Finland is so large that separate courses are organised for them.
“The popularity of the private language school fluctuates with the economic situation”, explains Lipasti.
The last couple of years have been pretty good for them, for Estonia’s nearly 15% unemployment rate drives people to look for work in Finland.
“And of course the student body includes those who do business with Finland as well as those who are married to a Finn”, adds Saares.