If only English could be like Finnish?

No! We don't advocate that English becomes Finnish or English becomes closer to Finnish!


We are not crazy like the ones who feel English should stay the way it is for ever because, in 2016, English has the most perfect spelling system.

Sadly, every English-speaker (and even speakers of other languages) have made the same assertion: during their lifetime, the way words were spelt was always right!. Strange! Clearly, they cannot be all right! As it turns out, they are all wrong! If they were living in Finland, however, a lot more would be right!


English                                                                                 Finnish

- 205 graphemes for 44 or so phonemes                                                  - 38 graphemes for 38 phonemes
- 4200 misspellings out of 7000 common words                                   - 6 misspelling (out of hundreds of thousands 
- Hundreds of thousands of English words are misspelled                   of Finnish words or the whole lexicon
in the whole lexicon (extrapolation on Masha Bell's work)

No wonder Finnish kids beat English-speaking kids on Pisa tests!

True, it is a bit more complicated than that! So, please, read on!

To correlate international literacy assessment scores (literacy) with the phonemicity of a language  is a complex proposition since many other factors interfere. Yet, it is interesting that Finnish students, who use one of the most phonemic languages of all European languages, top the chart. Yet, Canadian students are not far behind! Surely, there are other compensatory factors at work in elevating the scores of the Canadian students, but at what ... cost! Literally! Maybe the educational system in Finland is vastly superior and its success has nothing to do with its language?

To help us answer some of those questions, a great analysis was done here, but it does have a few shortcomings which I will explore later on.


Finnish students tend to score very high on many literacy assessments and consistantly so (PISA 2003 and 2006,...) and one might just wonder why! Conversely, English-speaking students from Canada, Australia, New Zealand do well too! BUT, the devil is in the detail! For instance, Finnish students receive only 3 hours of formal education per day whereas Canadian students, for instance, receive 4.5 hours a day. (1) That's 50% more! Moreover, Finnish students start school at age 7. Students in Canada start at age 5 (on average)! 2 more years is a great head start, especially at that age. But, maybe, it would not be necessary if English was not such a difficult language to learn!Some people argue that starting students too early is the problem.  A lot of the scientific data seems to point out that those are the times when children are the most malleable and can learn so many things. So, the idea of starting students later seems counter-intuitive and counter to all the scientific data. Certainly, it seems that Finnish students are getting less education, not more.

So, Finnish students go to school fewer hours per day and start later and they still do better than most other students from other countries! How do they do it? Maybe it is not a matter of quantity, but more a matter of quality? Apparently, they have highly educated teachers (with Master's degree). Canada has that too! They must  plan Individual Education programs for students. Teachers are highly respected in Finland. Not so, in Canada where teachers are often ridiculed for not working long hours --or so it seems! The curriculum guides are quite different: the Finnish one being more general in its scope (3). "For example, a typical middle school teacher in Finland teaches just less than 600 hours annually, corresponding to about four 45-minute lessons a day. In the United States, by contrast, a teacher at the same level devotes 1,080 hours to teaching over 180 school days as shown in Figure 2 (OECD, 2008). This means that a middle school teacher in the United States, on average, devotes about twice as much time to classroom teaching compared with his or her counterpart in Finland. This, however, does not imply that teachers in Finland work less than they do elsewhere. An important—and still voluntary—part of Finnish teachers’ work is devoted to the improvement of classroom practice, the school as a whole, and work with the community. Because Finnish teachers take on significant responsibility for curriculum and assessment, as well as experimentation." (Ibid) Finland has --up to this time-- a very homogeneous student population, with very few second language learner. Canada (and many other countries) have a good portion of their student population that are second-language learners.

Many have heard how well 15 year old Finns do on international tests (PISA). Many have linked this success to a host of factors and, while it is hard to argue that some of these factors must not help, a few people have also remarked that there is one more element that makes the Finns remarkable: a reliable and regular spelling system, whereby one letter is linked to one sound (or phoneme). However, because there are so many factors that come into play in evaluating a school system, how could one be certain that this "feature" does indeed play a role in their success? As luck would have it, there are Swedish-speakers in Finland.

Swedish-speaking and Finnish-speaking Students

In Finland, there are 2 linguistic communities. The Swedish-speaking kids (SS) and the Finnish-speaking kids (FS). Fortunately for us, both groups receive "exactly" the same kind of education: same trained teachers, same programs, same testing,... The major difference between the 2 groups is the language they use. It is worth noting that Swedish does not have as regular a spelling system as Finnish. Actually, the SS group has other characteristics that make the case even more compelling. This group apparently has the upper-middle class characteristics, which is usually associated with better educational outcomes, because they have better educated parents, access to more money to get tutoring, and many other advantages that the average middle-class FS kids would not have. In other words, we have a pretty strong controlled experiment here where we can evaluate how language affects educational outcomes.

Swedish-speaking Finns VS Finnish-speaking Finns

The only analysis that was done on this between Swedish-speaking Finns and Finnish-speaking Finns was done by Taksin Nuoret, a university student (apparently, ... because no one knows for sure who he is). Regardless, his comparison has not been challenged. And while it is not perfect, IMHO, there are many parts that are valuable. In his analysis (, the notion that an easy spelling system helps kids learn is compelling, considering we have close to a perfect controlled experiment as we could hope. " "In PISA 2003 Finnish-speaking students clearly outperformed their Swedish-speaking peers in scientific literacy, with an average difference of 26 points. However, also the Swedish-speaking minority was doing very well, since their results were on a par with those of the Netherlands." Moreover, "20,8% of the Finnish students who took part in PISA 2003 were Swedish-speaking, that is, much more than the share of the Swedish-speaking population (which was 5,55% in 2003). [...] This means that the PISA 2003 results of the Finnish-speaking students are actually even higher than those reported for the whole country (since the results reported for the whole country include results of both linguistic communities)." If one wants to do the same kind of research for other years, they can do it, but at this time, I don't have the time.

A Few Errors

Although the morphological and Estonian arguments support the thesis, they weaken it in a way! He points out that Estonian kids do better than many other kids from other countries on PISA! It is actually not that surprising, since Estonian and Finnish have the same characteristics: an easy spelling system. However, comparing Estonian's success and Finnish success is interesting, but weak since there are too many variables at work. The same thing can be said when he tries to compare the ranking of countries that have "phonetic" spelling systems, like Spain and Italy, against countries that have a complex spelling system, like English. Like with Estonia, there are too many variables that come into play. Since students of these countries did not do as well as, say, English speaking students, then he generalises and states that the "correlation between spelling and Pisa results is weak". But, Italian and Spanish educational systems are vastly different than Canadian or Australian systems. Are the school budgets in Italy the same as the ones in Canada? How many hours are devoted to language or spelling studies in Canadian schools compared to Italian schools? What is the teacher to student ratio? What is the support ratio? How about training or pay? What is the teaching load (as in marking expectations, types of tests, ...)? How about parent involvement, literacy, expectations,...? There are, in other words, so many factors that could tip the scale and compensate for the shortcoming of a difficult spelling system AND --likewise-- factors that could cause poor results. It is worth noting that the PISA test takes place at age 15, at which time, English-speaking students (and others) have had plenty of time to learn how to read all of those crazy words and memorize them --by hook or by crook-- as logograms. If Estonia had another linguistic community as Finland has, then the comparison would be more valid, trustworthy, and reliable. Still, it is an interesting point that Estonia's should not do as well educationally as "richer" (more developped) Western nations, based on several economic matrices, but it did! Sadly, recent results have not been duplicated!

The Finnish morphology argument in Mr. Nuoret's analysis is simple and quite intuitive too. He feels that the simple use of prefixes and suffixes (lexemes) across all of the lexicon, with regularity, makes learning the language fasdter and easier. Many Western languages have a mix of Greek and Latin suffixes that make learning to read more complicated. This is a very simple concept. Again, simplicity and regularity are key. It is hard to argue against such a simple concept!


The issue of whether or not a spelling system can affect the ability to learn a language is only as good as the inference that one can make from a set of data and variables that you can --or cannot-- control. Fortunately, the SS to FS comparison is strong, since many variables are being controlled. It is true that many speakers learn to read and spell in English. In fact, on the PISA test Canadian students and SS students perform just as well. The Canadian system and the SS conditions are similar, with similar educational conditions and languages that have their challenges.That Finnish-speaking Finns do much better than their Swedish-speaking counterparts (and kids from other countries like kids from Commonwealth countries) who have complex spelling systems demonstrates that a complex spelling system like English has is likely to challenge learning. It does not make it impossible! There are compelling evidence that it delays learning too. In other words, there are no compelling evidence that we can find that proves that a complex spelling system is an advantage.

Finnish has its challenges though! Many of his words are much longer ... to read, for instance! Dr. yule also points out that some of the differences between some phonemes are so minor that some learners find it hard to distinguish them. But, all the data shows that Finnish is a much easier language to learn than English and by a long shot, according to Dr. Yule's analysis.

So, this is one more evidence --and a very strong one at that--that spelling does matter. Intuitively, most human beings would understand that a reliable spelling system would make learning to read QUICKER. Again, millions of people can read, have learned to read English. That is not the point. The point is that if the AEnglish spelling system was made more regular, learning to read (and spell) would be faster and also much easier, something that educators around the world strive for.

Well! I offered you to test that hypothesis and you did not take up on it! SOME of my replies are cutting and pasting from MY website! Oh! Shocking! It did not occur to you? What is your MO? Let's be frank you are in love with the English as it is. You are a teacher, a translator,. an owner of a tutoring agency, a school,... Since you are starting to annoy me with your baseless innuendos  and your inability to learn , I will demonstrate. It is posted here. Let me guess that you are old and you think you know it all. Let me demonstrate that you are erring one more time.

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