After sportlov I’m feeling much more confident with everyday routines at work. It’s time to focus on the special features of this new learning environment. As I’m a new teacher in another country using two foreign languages in addition to my own native language, it will still take some time to settle into this position. The motivation for being fluent in Swedish is now higher than ever because it would definitely make the work easier for me. To understand the students’ communication and their culture is one of the most important things in teacher’s work, if not the most important one. But what is the communication like in a bilingual school? How does it work to teach in two languages?

In a bilingual school, instead of one teaching language, there are two languages with academic status, which is why the lessons are usually given in both languages, more or less at the same time. The exceptions in our school are of course the Finnish and Swedish lessons where everything is in one language. The goal of this particular type of bilingual education is so-called additive bilingualism. Basically, it means that the aim is to improve two languages simultaneously and give the students good academic skills in both the major language (Swedish) and the teaching language (Finnish). Additive bilingualism is often applied in minority language schools, such as Finnish or Sámi schools in Sweden, to support the status of the national minorities.

But how to teach in two languages simultaneously? It is still a mystery to me how it is supposed to work fluently. At first, I thought it would be something like CLIL or language immersion where the goal is also to improve two languages. However, the difference to bilingual education is that the teaching language in these cases is not the students’ native language. For example in Finland, the language immersion programs (kielikylpyluokka) in Swedish are designed for children whose parents are Finnish speaking and who speak Finnish as their first language. The same with the CLIL programs in English – the students don’t speak English at home, but they learn it at school where it’s integrated into different topics. In these programs, the teacher can (in most cases) assume that the teaching language is new to all students. In bilingual schools, however, the students’ level in the two teaching languages varies. And what I’ve learned this far is that it varies a lot. Like most of the schools in Stockholm, also ours is multilingual/multicultural, not only Finnish and Swedish. Some students might even speak three languages at home in addition to the two spoken at school. Therefore, it can be very hard to define which language is the student’s “first language” (L1) and which one should be taught as the “second language” (L2). I’m getting a bit lost here with all the different concepts so let’s go back to practice.

For those students who are fluent bilinguals (both FI and SE as L1), it’s not a problem to switch between languages during the lessons. For instance, if we read a text in Swedish, the bilinguals can continue talking about it in Finnish without translating. However, I was surprised how much we need translating after all. It seems to be very important and interesting for the pupils to compare the languages. I started to question the method where the teacher should not translate but stick to the teaching language and explain the difficult words with that. If there’s a translation that means the same, why not to switch the language and translate? The translations are especially needed in math and science since the students should learn the important concepts in both languages. Usually, we mix Finnish and Swedish material depending on the topic. For those students whose Finnish is much weaker than Swedish, we have the exact same math books translated into Swedish (Tuhattaituri/Karlavagnen). Furthermore, I sometimes give instructions in both languages to those who need it. However, as I’m not bilingual (FI/SE) myself, I’ve still got a lot to do with my Swedish to be confident enough to teach fluently in Swedish.

If we go out from the academic world and listen how the pupils talk, we’ll find a third language spoken perhaps even more than “pure” Finnish or Swedish. On my first day, the students showed me a little dictionary of the language they speak with each other. They’ve started calling this mixed language as Swefi, meaning Swedish-Finnish spoken by the Sweden Finns. Mainly it’s Swedish with Finnish grammar rules, which makes funny combinations like “vessata” (means “to sharpen a pen” but to a native Finnish speaker like me it sounds more like “need to pee”). I think learning Swefi is the key to good communication and cultural understanding with the students. So the goal is set! Let’s see how it goes!