My Turn: Finland’s successful language immersion could teach us a valuable education lesson

As the world becomes globalized, language-immersion education in our public schools is increasingly important. We need to teach our students about other cultures and languages as well as model cultural sensitivity, so they can interact successfully in culturally diverse settings.

I grew up in Oregon, and my family spoke both Finnish and English in our home. I recently spent a year teaching in an English immersion school in Espoo, Finland, a high-tech town much like Beaverton.

Finnish schools emphasize early language learning; about a third of the students at this school, beginning with first grade, are in the immersion program. Initially, all classes are taught in English, except for a class in Finnish literacy.

In subsequent years, Finnish is introduced into more subjects. Additional languages — such as Swedish, Russian, German, Spanish and French — may be added as students move up in grade level.

The Finnish elementary school system has a remarkable record of success. Finnish students achieved top scores among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in mathematics, science and reading.

Finnish students continue to achieve exemplary scores, comparable to or better than students in other OECD countries and certainly far higher than students in the United States. Finland’s educators appear to be doing something right. Perhaps the success of the Finnish educational system is related to the high priority placed on language education in their curriculum.

Generally, children learn a second language more quickly and fluently than adults. Studies show that children taught a language before age 10 acquire the correct accent. This is nearly impossible later in life. Children who learn languages early experience the world from different linguistic perspectives and seem to become more culturally sensitive.

Unquestionably, the immediate hard economic realities present obstacles to implementing language-immersion classes in schools. However, we must weigh long-term costs of not preparing for an increasingly global and competitive world. It is our responsibility to prepare our students for this culturally diverse and interactive world.

Inkeri Chisholm Martin of Lake Oswego is an elementary teacher in the Lake Oswego School District and former language-immersion school teacher. She is also an Applied Linguistics graduate student at Portland State University and mother of two young sons.

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