Minority languages in childhood education in Finland

Support for heritage languages Helsinki, Vantaa and Espoo

Who supports multicultural families?

Finnish municipalities have the responsability to organize services for children to teach heritage languages. Children that speak minority languages are offered 2 hours per week of language lessons, free of charge. These classes do not replace the primary role of families to teach and maintain the use of the heritage language at home. The lessons are complementary to the basic education and are offering for children from 7 to 15 years of age.

The right to education in heritage languages is guaranteed by the Finnish Constitution in article 17. The provision grants all residents in the country the right to maintain and develop their own language and culture. The fulfilment of this right begins inside the home, where parents can stimulate the knowledge of heritage languages, The complementary stimuli, at home and at school, are important to further plurilingualism, an advantage that will enrich people throughout their entire lives.

A special fund of the Ministry of Education finances the program. Municipalities are responsible for requesting the funds and deciding how to use the resources. On the other hand, families that speak minority languages must ask that the program includes their languages.

The “OMA KIELI – oma mieli” document, published by the Finnish National Agency for Education in 2016, describes the importance of the service and states that proficiency in the heritage language is a relevant predictor of the child’s ability to learn new languages. The document also emphasizes that each language is valuable and worthy of protection, and that heritage languages are a fundamental part of the construction of identity and the structuring of thought. The complementary stimuli, at home and at school, are important to further plurilingualism, and that learning these languages also facilitates inclusion into Finnish society.

Who is entitled to participate in the program?

All children that speak other languages apart from Finnish or Swedish have the right to heritage language lessons. That includes all children that speak minority languages as well as Finnish-speaking students that have lived abroad and have received basic education in another language. Furthermore, children adopted from foreign countries are also entitled to participation. The service is available to all children in basic education, grades 1 through 9.

Students qualify even if the heritage language is spoken by only one of the parents. It is important to note, however, that students are entitled to lessons in only one language, even in the case of multiple languages spoken at home. That means that, for plurilingual children, parents will need to decide which language will receive the support of the program.

Another caveat: children that study in bilingual programs, such as the ones in Kulosaari and Maunula (English) or Käpylä (Spanish), do not qualify to the program. Since they already have lessons in their heritage language in their regular hours at school, it’s considered that their right to education in minority languages is already being served.

How does the program work?

Application for the program is voluntary and depends on a request from the family. In the metropolitan area this classes happen in Helsinki, Vantaa, Espoo and Kauniainen Classes happen on week days in the afternoon, after regular school hours, for grades 1 through 9, and are free of charge.

There are 44 different heritage languages taught in Helsinki, 40 in Espoo and about 30 in Vantaa. Some of the languages included are: Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, English, Spanish, Farsi / Dari, Hindi, Dutch, Indonesian, Italian, Greek, Kurdish, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Mandarin Chinese, Nepali, Norwegian, Pashtu, Portuguese, Polish, French, Romani, Romanian, German, Serbo-Croatian, Somali, Swahili, Tagalog, Tamil, Thai, Czech, Turkish, Hungarian, Urdu, Russian, Vietnamese and Estonian. Sometimes groups might be full and new groups need to be created. In Helsinki, Vantaa or Espoo, a minimum of 10 students is needed for opening a new heritage language class. That minimum also applies in the case of new languages. That’s why the initiative of interested families in requesting the lessons is so important. The requests justify the Municipality’s access to additional funds, when needed.

Sometimes, the heritage language lessons may be available in the child’s neighborhood school. Often times, however, the student will need to commute to another school, not necessarily very close to home. In Helsinki, at least, students in this situation qualify for transportation support. Contact your school’s office to learn more. This support is not available in Espoo.

How to enroll my child in these classes?

General guidelines state that you can apply to heritage language lessons at the same time you apply for elementary education or 1st grade. The application can also be made at a later time, but the dates and application process vary per municipality.

Check the information from your municipality about when and how to apply. In any case, contact your child’s school office if you have any questions. They will be able to assist you in the application process and provide the information you need.

Remember, this is a right of your child’s!

For further information on the application process, please check:

HELSINKI service information here Form to enroll here. The application form, must be delivered at your child’s school office.

ESPOO provides contact information and a phone number for queries and the forms can be found here. The application period is January through April.

VANTAA also provides contact information and a phone number for queries, but the website is in Finnish only, here. We recommend you request the forms for your school office. They should also provide assistance with the application process, if needed.

Additional information on the program, in Finnish, can be found in the “OMA KIELI – oma mieli” document published by the Finnish National Agency for Education in 2016:

Text: Laura Gazzotti. Translated by Andréa Santos Brito
Research: Laura Gazzotti and Adriana Minhoto