Language Teaching Policy Effects -- a Case Study of Finland

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1. Emergence of foreign language teaching policy

Systematic attempts to define a national policy of foreign language teaching are of relatively recent origin. The growing need for such a policy is due to a number of developments. The fact that the teaching of foreign languages has expanded to encompass larger sections of the population including both younger and adult learners means that language teaching has become increasingly more institutionalized. Like any system, it requires systematic planning and evaluation.

In the United States the growing enthusiasm for teaching foreign languages in the elementary schools (FLES) led to the National Defence Education Act (1958) in the aftermath of Sputnik, and the Bilingual Education Act (1968). The "Strength Through Wisdom" commission report (1979) made a number of recommendations to improve the declining situation in language teaching. In Finland a national commission (1979) outlined a comprehensive plan for foreign language teaching policy for the next three decades. Another commission (1990) analysed what implications the recent changes in Europe had for the language teaching provision (see Takala 1993a, 1993b). A major language teaching policy document has recently been produced for The Netherlands (van Els -- van Hest 1992; van Els 1993).

It seems that a major development in education in general, and in language education as a specific instance, is a growing realization of them as social institutions, as social systems that serve some fundamental social desires, needs and functions. Language teaching serves basic communication needs, and as its importance tends to increase all the time, it acquires the characteristics of any institutionalized process. This means, among other things, that language education is becoming and needs to become more and more organized, i.e. roles and role relationships are specified in greater detail. Language teaching becomes more systematized, which means that tasks are also specified and it also entails that language teaching is not dependent on particular individuals.

Language teaching is not only the activity of individual teachers--it is a system of activities. In order to understand it as a system, we need to realize its boundaries, its central purposes and its level in a larger context. We must be aware of its various subsystems and of their interrelationships. For all this we need models to help us to describe and work out the practical consequences of different approaches.

One possible model (Takala 1979) is presented in Figure 1. It is an adaptation of similar models proposed by Mackey (1970), Stern (1970), Strevens (1977), Spolsky (1978) and others. All of these models seek to define what disciplines contribute to language education; what the tasks of theoreticians, applied linguists and practitioners are in language education; what factors/major variables interact to place language learning into its sociopolitical context. There seems to be a broad consensus that a general model for second/foreign language teaching theory and practice needs to be comprehensive (cover all possible situations); it needs to stress the principle of interaction (the interdependence of components) and the multifactor view (no single factor can predominate), and it needs to recognize that scholarship underlying language teaching is multidisciplinary (Stern 1983: 35-50).

According to the model above, and other similar models, formal language teaching in a school-type context takes place in a complex setting consisting of a number of levels. At level 1, the societal level, the need of language proficiency is manifested in a more or less clearly defined language teaching policy and it is recognized in the form of societal support for language teaching. At level 2, the school system level, we are concerned with the foundations of language teaching, its infrastructure: the organizational and administrative framework and the traditions of language teaching. …