Contextuality in terms of learning a language

Learning a new language is a long and challenging process. Due to their limited linguistic skills, finding work may be challenging at first for an immigrant or a person who speaks Finnish as a second language. A project carried out by University Lecturer Salla Kurhila and Docent Lari Kotilainen with support from the Kone Foundation studies learning Finnish in actual linguistic situations and alternative language learning models.

Linguistic competence is important at work, and the work community can support learning a language

Kurhila and Kotilainen study the contextual learning of Finnish, that is how a language is learnt in a specific environment. Their project was started last spring when they collected material in the research environment, which was a hospital. The material collected at the hospital mainly consists of video recordings of interaction between nurses and patients. The initial phase of the process was slow, as the material collected at the hospital had to be transcribed. There are also challenges related to recording interaction in a hospital environment due to permits, for example, and project leader Salla Kurhila believes that the hospital material collected during the project is unique.

“At least we do not know of any other material that has been recorded previously in Finland about interaction between patients and nurses at a hospital,” Kurhila says.

In Finland, Finnish competence is required in many workplaces. A certain level of linguistic competence is a requirement in some professions, such as in the care industry. Kurhila and Kotilainen agree that it is important to have a certain level of language skills in order to avoid any dangerous situations in particular in the care industry.

However, people who are learning a new language often face the most challenging situations in everyday situations.

“Social situations are definitely the most challenging situations for many who are learning a new language. They may have studied plenty of terminology and grammar but situations with colleagues during a coffee break, for example, may be challenging for them,” Kurhila explains.

“Care employees are often familiar with difficult professional vocabulary and terminology, but understanding spoken Finnish may be challenging.”

Kurhila and Kotilainen believe that the material collected during the project could bring clarity to contextual language learning and also help identify any reoccurring problems related to the interaction between nurses and patients. For example, reoccurring misunderstandings in certain situations could be identified and interaction within a department could be developed at the same time.

A network cannot replace a traditional learning environment

Another research object of the project carried out by Kurhila and Kotilainen is learning a language in a digital learning environment.

Online studying continues to increase. Traditional books are replaced by e-books, and it is becoming easier for anyone to participate in a lecture, for example, through a remote connection. Online study is also possible when learning a language, but Lari Kotilainen does not believe it will replace regular participatory teaching.

“Online study is a good option if it is not possible to attend contact teaching due to physical distance, for example. However, contact is essential when learning a language,” Kotilainen states.

“Personally, I think that online studying could be used in learning the basics of a language or as a part of teaching alongside contact teaching.”

According to Kotilainen, using mobile devices and applications in teaching is a good way to use the network as part of learning a language. However, it is important that a participatory and contextual learning situation is not completely forgotten.



Salla Kurhila is a University Lecturer of Finnish Language and Culture at the University of Helsinki.

Lari Kotilainen is a Docent of Finnish language at the University of Helsinki.

The project on Finnish as a second language and contextual learning received funding in the Kone Foundation’s grant application for autumn 2016.


Text: Maija Koivisto