The Suomalaiset – Finns to you – have a word we could well adopt in English: “sisu”, a term that means a mix of physical and mental stamina, the sort of inward resilience that allows you to hack your way across the winter tundra after a wolf has torn your leg off (in Finland, it’s also a brand of truck).

You need a bit of “sisu” to cope with the ideological pumpings of the right — a case in point, being Blaise Joseph and Jennifer Buckingham’s comment piece for The Age on Wednesday, decrying the recent enthusiasm for the Finnish school system as a model for Australia. The article is mostly mealy-mouthed question-begging: While acknowledging that Finland’s socialist, low-testing, non-streaming, flexible system delivers the best results in the world:

Yes, Finland consistently outperformed Australia on all the international standardised tests in 2016, and of course we should be willing to learn lessons from the top-performing countries – including the East Asian ‘tiger economies’.

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Before going on to whine:

But Finland’s international test results have declined in recent years.

Yes, they’re not No. 1 by such a large margin. But it’s always difficult to judge specialist commentary, even when you suspect it’s desperate neoliberal propaganda. If only one had a test to tell you whether it was horseshit.

Finnish is also a simpler language than English, which means learning to read is relatively easier.

That’s horseshit. It’s based on the fact that Finnish has phonetic spelling, and so writing take-up in primary years may be quicker at some stages. After that, it gets harder. Way harder. Finnish — as this writer can attest, having spent part of a year trying to learn it (for a girl; everyone who ever learnt Finnish was either a CIA Cold War station chief, or it was for a girl) — is bloody murder, even for native speakers.

The language is non-Indo-European. English is an “isolate” language — words don’t alter their spelling much according to noun case, or verb mood. Most Indo-European languages are “inflected”: i.e. in French the adjective must agree with the noun — les maisons bleues (not bleu), “the blue houses”. Finnish, from the Ural-Altaic group, is noun-case-heavy and agglomerative. Case-heavy? Each noun has up to 20 cases, with singular and plural for each — 40 forms for each. The word changes whether it’s a subject, object, possessive, ablative (motion towards), elative, illative, adessive etc, and many more. Here’s the word list for ajastaika (“year”).

Note, how the root changes through three different forms as the endings change. You have to know it all.

But wait, there’s more! After that, you have to add particles to the end to indicate questioning, subject-object relation, etc. Here are the case-differences for kauppa” (a shop), together with particles: from kauppa (nominative singular), to kauppa-ko (nominative singular clitic-interrogative … don’t ask), to, around 250 forms later, kaupo-i-tta-nsa-kin-ko-han ABE PL SGPL3 KIN KO HAN (really, don’t ask).

The latter means something like, I think, “are they [going] to the shop with me too?” (I may have that totally wrong, and Google translate has problems with these long noun forms).

But wait there’s more! Finnish has multiple verb moods – stuff like the subjunctive in French, for actions that are potential, imaginary, possible, etc.

The upshot is that young Finns are learning the details of their language, and making case and particle errors, well into their teens. Like all languages that have survived from a pre-modern people, it has preserved “classificatory” systems, that are actually genuinely more complex and difficult for its native speakers than “isolate” languages like English or Malay.

But wait, there’s more! Finnish students have to learn Swedish as well, from grade four — an Indo-European language with no common vocabulary — and then add English. All Finns under about 65 are tri-lingual. Recently, a fourth language option has been added in high school, usually Spanish, German or Russian.

It’s a considerable achievement, and an easy clue to the right-wing fudging in the piece, the propaganda model they pursue, and gullibility of The Age in running such stuff for “balance”.

Mind you, Joseph and Buckingham are right: east-Asian systems such as South Korea, also get impressive results — using test-heavy, long hours, streamed, high-discipline schools. They also top the charts in something else: teenage and youth suicide and depression

Yes, what a great model — for the miserable neoliberal hell of an education system they are urging on us all. Those poor kids could lose some “sisu”.

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Crikey is an independent Australian-owned and run outfit. It doesn’t enjoy the vast resources of the country’s main media organisations. We take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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