In a café near Good News from Finland headquarters, Mark Barratt orders his coffee in fluent Finnish. Nothing in his pronunciation betrays the fact that he was born and raised in Nottinghamshire, UK, and has only moved to Finland as an adult.
Yet still, he can neither write nor really read Finnish. At least nowhere near the convincing level of his conversational skills.
“I’ve never taken a single lesson. Or well, I did try a reading class, but I still can’t read very well,” he admits laughingly. “I’ve learned Finnish only through listening and speaking.”
Barratt is the senior vice president in solutions and services at Sanako, a Finnish educational technology company producing technology and content for language teaching and learning. Sanako’s focus is on using your language skills and particularly on speech.
“Learning a language is like learning a new life skill,” Barratt points out. “One can move country, apply for a job and make friends because of it.”
Without undermining the importance of knowing grammar and being able to read and write, finding the courage and opportunity to practise speaking and hearing is just as essential – and sometimes more difficult.
“In fact, the natural way we learn our own mother tongue is by learning to speak and listen first before we ever learn to read and write,” Barratt explains. “To learn quicker and in a more native way than is possible in a classroom, foreigners also need to sit in a pub and simply listen and talk.”
It all started in the lab
Sanako’s history goes back to the 1970s, when a company then known as Auditek was founded, later owned by Teleste Educational. It specialised and became a world leader in language labs used in schools and other educational institutions – currently in over 110 countries.
“The language lab makes learning a lot more effective,” Barratt tells. “Without a language lab, in a class of 30 pupils, one would talk for a minute and listen for 29. With a language lab, they can talk for the full half an hour. It also helps the shyer students practise out loud but in private.”
After various happenings and changes in ownership, the name Sanako was registered in 2003. It still sells language labs used by millions of students around the world, but also provides schools with tools and content for language teaching and learning.
Now the company is targeting consumers directly as well, without necessarily needing an institution or a teacher. Sanako Pronounce Live, which the company describes as a solution “for situations where learning takes place both inside and outside classrooms and on different devices”, was released last year.
The new tool is an addition to Sanako’s existing range of solutions.
“Sanako has established two forks: we provide technology with specialism in language learning as well as cool tools that benefit our existing customers and content digitisation technologies and services,” Barratt summarises.
In practice, Sanako Pronounce Live is like a language class that can be used either in studying independently or to support formal teaching. The pronunciation tool records speech, gives instant feedback and lets the user choose topics according to their own interests, without having to rely on predetermined content. This leaves more leeway regarding what exercises students can do, as they can copy, paste and practise texts from today’s papers instead of old textbooks.
“Students these days don’t want to talk about Bush, they want to talk about Trump,” Barratt says.
What do you mean ‘no homework’?
Sanako is headquartered in Turku, Finland, with a small office located the capital area. Abroad, the company has branches in the US, the UK, Dubai, India, China and Singapore. Some 99 per cent of sales come from outside of Finland.
In addition to schools and consumers, Sanako collaborates with publishers. Barratt points out that currently ebooks offer little more than a different platform for a book with very few interactive dimensions, but with Sanako’s solutions, publishers can add even more elements to their textbooks. This weaves together a textbook, an exercise book and both listening and speaking exercises.
Internationally, Finland is known for its excellent education system. Barratt says that Sanako takes advantage of this reputation, as Finnish education technology is seen as part of the success. At some point, the company is hoping to collaborate with Finnish gaming expertise, too, in the gamification of language learning.
There’s just one thing that bugs Barratt about the fame Finland has received in the press: when articles claim Finnish students aren’t given any homework. As a father of two, he knows this isn’t correct.
“I think teachers here are just clever with homework. It can either be a little bit every day or long-term projects, where students have to take responsibility for their own schedules.”