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The Finnish-Estonian linguistic bridge in the 21st century

Keywords: knowledge of language(s), multilingualism, foreign language learning, Finnish language learning, language prestige

Traditionally, the metaphor of a Finnish-Estonian „linguistic bridge” has been used to refer to the competence in both languages on either side of the Gulf of Finland. The focus of this article is on the teaching of and competence in Finnish on the Estonian side. Over the recent 75 years the numbers of the Estonian people skilled in Finnish has grown from 0.5 % of the population in 1934 to 12.9 % in 2011, that is from 5729 to 167 315 people. This growth of Finnish proficiency in Estonians has to do with their close Finnish contacts, including working in Finland. Although most of the Finnish has been acquired outside formal education, the language has been available at schools as a third (less as a fourth) foreign language and since 2011 as a second (B) foreign language. By the 2015/2016 academic year there were four schools in Estonia with a practical experience in teaching Finnish as a B foreign language, while the number of students receiving or having received such education was 216.

The aim of the study was to analyse why the students have chosen Finnish as their B foreign language, in particular, whether Finnish was considered easier or more difficult to learn than some other foreign language, whether Finnish has a higher prestige, or whether the choice was mainly motivated by a hope to find better work.

Traditionally, Estonian formal education has included at least two compulsory foreign languages, while a number of general schools offer one or two in addition. The results of language learning considerably depend on the rank of the language among the other foreign languages taught at the particular school, as well as on the contents and number of lessons. Since 2011 the basic school curriculum allows teaching any foreign language that the school can afford and the students wish to learn. Before that the first and second foreign languages had to be chosen from a list of four (English, German, French and Russian). The rest, including Finnish, were mainly taught as a third, much less as a fourth foreign language. The legal option to teach any foreign language as the second foreign language has mainly been realised by choosing Finnish.

In the 2011/2012 academic year Finnish was introduced as the second foreign language in the sixth form at four general schools. In April 2016 we made up a questionnaire of 13 items and emailed it, with brief instructions enclosed, to the Finnish teachers of those schools, targeting their new students. The results were received by ordinary mail in May and June, same year, yielding a total of 188 filled-in questionnaires returned from 87 % of the 216 students taking Finnish as the second foreign language in those four basic schools. Of the 188 respondents 60 came from Jõgeva, 13 from Tartu, 52 from Pärnu and 63 from Viljandi, aged from 11 to 16, with girls (53 %) slightly outnumbering boys (47 %).

We analysed the responses using a combined approach. The questions assuming free formulation of answers were subjected to qualitative inspection, while those assuming a numerical answer were approached statistically.

According to the results the most important language of communication, according to the young respondents, is English. However, proficiency in other languages is also appreciated, especially in Finnish for communication with Finns. Nearly one in every three respondents considered the relative similarity of Finnish and Estonian a condition facilitating learning.

The authors of the article believe that learning and teaching Finnish as well as Estonian on both sides of the Gulf continues to be necessary and topical in the interest of preserving the multilingual tradition and the linguistic bridge-building.

 

Tõnu Tender (b. 1965), PhD, Institute of the Estonian Language, Director, tonu.tender@eki.ee

Sven-Erik Soosaar (b. 1973), MA, Institute of the Estonian Language, Senior Lexicographer, svenerik@eki.ee

 

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