The purpose of language teaching is to provide the ability to communicate, says Leena Nissilä, the new director of the University of Helsinki’s Language Centre

The learning of languages in basic education and general upper secondary education has declined and narrowed. Today, different languages have a constant presence in the everyday lives of children and adolescents, making interest in languages natural.

“These days, people don’t necessarily separately learn languages. Instead, information is continuously sought, including in languages other than your native tongue,” says Leena Nissilä, PhD, the new director of the Language Centre.

In the media too, a number of languages are used, with informal language acquisition gaining an increasingly significant role alongside conscious language learning. In fact, the purpose of teaching is to help learners analyse what they have seen and learnt outside the classroom.

“At its best, formal teaching is able to utilise the mixed-language textual and media environment young people encounter in their free time.”

Increasing need for language proficiency due to globalisation

Many contemporary work communities are multilingual, which is why Nissilä considers it increasingly important for language subjects to be given enough room in the teaching programmes of various disciplines.

The diversification of language skills needs has increased the need for field-specific language instruction. As international contacts have multiplied, being able to discuss issues relevant to one’s field in several languages has become essential.

“Moreover, the range of contacts varies geographically by profession, which makes it important to have educational offerings in a number of languages.”

In addition to European languages, interest in, for example, those spoken in Asia is on the rise among Finns. And some languages are being rediscovered, as is happening with Estonian and Russian at the moment. In the case of Nordic languages, interest in languages other than Swedish has increased, particularly among people who speak Swedish as their native language or who are otherwise proficient in it.

“Even though language skills have in some way narrowed down and many people are worried about the supremacy of English, we currently have language teaching available in more languages than ever in Finland,” Nissilä points out. “Both in schools and other educational institutions as well as in society, languages are more prominently visible than before. After all, there are currently more than 150 languages spoken as native languages in Finland.”

Perception of language acquisition has changed

What may have changed the most is people’s perception of language acquisition. A functional approach to language and language skills emphasises the language needs of learners, situations relevant to them and how to act in them.

“Language is increasingly seen as a communication tool based on meaning.”

A functional approach to language teaching draws more and more from sociocultural and usage-based thinking. People can utilise various resources to interact with each other. Ultimately, language proficiency originates in interaction with other people, making interaction not the end point but the starting point of learning.

According to Nissilä, a holistic approach now predominates, according to which language acquisition is a very complex, comprehensive and interactive process where language is learnt by using it, with learners’ language usage being shaped by that of their environment. At the same time, they themselves shape the language variety prevalent around them.

“It’s also quite a relief for learners, as people no longer think that you should, for example, master grammar rules before opening your mouth.”

This transformation is also reflected in notions pertaining to language skills. The goal is not to achieve an imaginary level of native-speaker perfection, but the ability to communicate. Thus, the goal of learning is to acquire language skills which help you succeed in a range of situations and communities.

Continuous learning increases the need to develop language skills and language teaching

Nissilä believes everyone should have the opportunity to advance and expand their language skills throughout their lives. It’s important to portray all languages as a resource in society and to increase the respect for language skills as an element of professional competence.

“From the perspective of learning languages, it means above all that we have the capacity to support and inspire everyone to develop their language skills at all stages of life. This means bringing about motivation from within even when students’ previous experiences of learning languages have not been, for one reason or another, very encouraging.”

Consequently, the focus should also be on supporting the establishment of a multilingual identity while providing instruction in a specific language. What this means in practice is that students are encouraged to use different languages in parallel, to not hesitate using even limited language skills, and to utilise different ways of learning languages.

Language proficiency is more than proficiency in national languages

Nissilä has followed the public discussion on languages and language proficiency with interest. The language skills of individuals already start to develop in early childhood, a process that continues throughout their lives. Competence in native and other languages develops both at home and at school, as well as, in today’s world, in people's free time.

Nissilä points out that practically all students today are multilingual, which means that they have varied skills in more than one language apart from their native language. They also take advantage of their skills in different languages to boost their learning in a range of subjects. And yet, some people in Finland are easily called monolingual or unilingual simply because they are not proficient in Finnish and Swedish, the national languages of Finland, while being adept in several languages, some of which can be widely-spoken world languages.

“We are still unable to consider all languages as a resource, nor do we have sufficient shared understanding of multilingualism. When talking about language teaching, teaching of native languages can be entirely overlooked, as if they were not languages to begin with, whereas in reality, strong skills in one’s native language lays the foundation for all other learning.”

With the University’s language subjects, the Language Centre fulfils an important duty of promoting cultural diversity and language awareness

Language plays a key part in learning, in addition to which each field of science has a language of its own, with unique usages and terminologies. Consequently, the specialised language used in each discipline is, in a way, a foreign language to all students before they embark on their studies. This is why all university teachers are ‘language’ teachers of their discipline as well.

“Indeed, at a recently held development day at the Language Centre, we discussed how language awareness could be further increased in universities: by emphasising the significance of language to learning, while at the same time encouraging the thorough utilisation in teaching of students’ language resources, as well as the languages they use in their free time.”

The Language Centre of the University of Helsinki is the largest language education institution in Finland. Every year, some 13,000 students take courses organised by the Language Centre.

Leena Nissilä appointed director of the Language Centre

Leena Nissilä, PhD, worked at the Finnish National Agency for Education for over 16 years before transferring to the Language Centre. She has extensive experience of management and leadership, development projects in the education sector and, for example, the Finnish Matriculation Examination Board.

Nissilä has explored language acquisition since her doctoral thesis.

The duties of the director of the Language Centre combine many of the things in which Nissilä has been involved over the course of her career. Research, teacher education, studies in university pedagogy and broad-based professional experience all help in the development of the pedagogy of language acquisition and the utilisation of digital solutions.

Nissilä has been involved in education on different levels, from basic education to general upper secondary school and from vocational education to university education in both Finland and abroad. At the Finnish National Agency for Education, her most recent post was as the head of the general education and early childhood education and care unit. Nissilä has also contributed to a range of development projects carried out by different government ministries, among them, in recent years, the Comprehensive School Forum and the Teacher Education Forum. She has served as a member of the Matriculation Examination Board for nearly 15 years, the last two as its vice-chair.

Photo: Hannu Kangas