Diversity from the other side

Recently I gave a guest lecture on multilingualism and the management of diversity in schools. In the final discussion, a student asked: “So far, everything has showed the happy side of multilingualism: that it is colorful and builds tolerance. But what about those suffering from it?”. At that point I realized that most of my examples and arguments supported approaches that highlight multilingualism as a rich resource in institutions. However, apparently the students wanted to talk about something else as well. They wanted to share and discuss their language related experiences with frustration, exclusion and failure, calling attention to cases where various multilingual profiles are not equally appreciated. The students also sought answers to their questions, and they wanted me to take part in this.

As a researcher, I find that enhancing interaction between people in and outside academia is one of my most important tasks.

As a Hungarian in Finland, I can mediate between communities with different traditions and practices. Further, I have experienced that my minority position opens new avenues for researching diversity.

Perspectives lost and found

For many years, I have been studying linguistic diversity from a majority position, as a well-educated native Hungarian in Hungary. In 2013, I moved to Finland to learn more about Finnish education and to get a comparative perspective to my studies on language ideologies in Hungarian schools. Living in Finland, I speak Hungarian, English and Finnish on a daily basis, and I also keep contact with a Francophone community in Jyväskylä. Since my move to Finland, I have been considering myself a ‘real multilingual person’. However, this new linguistic self-identity has not only broadened my linguistic repertoire: now I can understand more deeply the ‘dark side’ of multilingualism as well. Although I grow in speaking Finnish day by day, my limited access to information and fragmented contribution to discussions mean quite big challenges.

It happens almost every day that I miss practical information or feel myself being excluded from many sorts of conversation because of language barriers. Being a Hungarian in Hungary, I have virtually never experienced anything similar to that.

Agency has always been in the center of my academic interest. I have been enthusiastic about studying whether people feel themselves encouraged or supported in taking initiatives and acting autonomously in interaction, with a special regard to education where curiosity and exploration are essential for success. Needless to say, my current life situation makes me even more curious about opportunities and restrictions in multilingual communication. In the last few years, I have visited schools both in Finland and Hungary. I have observed lessons, recorded interviews and taken thousands of photographs. When analyzing the data, I am interested in interactional practices and negotiation processes that shape language policies in school communities. Currently, I am getting more and more interested in how the material environment of education influences language policies.

A man from Finland in Hungary and a Hungarian in Finland

My Kone Foundation funded project has the title Voices of diversity: A comparison of Finnish and Hungarian ideologies on the management of linguistic diversity and multilingualism. In its implementation, I aim at highlighting research participants’ opinions, stories and ideologies in the research narrative. That is, the word ‘voices’ in the title stands for research participants’ accounts primarily. However, the participants were in dialogue with me during the fieldwork so they did not only articulate their points of view but also reflected on what they sensed could be part of my life. For example, in Hungary I was quite often labeled as ‘a man from Finland’. In some cases research participants offered me to talk in English in the interviews to help ‘the Finns’ in understanding our voice recorded conversation. Further, some people commented on my role of facilitating international interaction and exchange of knowledge. For example, a mother I interviewed in a school in Northeastern Hungary told me:

“Hallom, hogy te Finnországban vagy. Ha Finnországban meghallgatják, jól vésse mindegyik szülő az eszébe: Magyarországon szegény emberek élnek, de van olyan anya, és vannak olyan tanárok, akik szívvel élnek, hogy a gyerekekért […] harcolnak, és az igazságért.”

“I hear you’re in Finland. If they listen to this in Finland, let every parent remember: poor people live in Hungary, but there is a mother and there are teachers of the kind that live with feeling heart and fight for the children and the truth.”

In the interview, this mother talked a lot about her challenges with poverty and educating her children. As it can be read in the excerpt, she emphasized my position of being a Hungarian among Finns with the capacity of playing (and interpreting) her voice to a Finnish audience. Later in the interview she compared the Hungarian and the Finnish education system to support her arguments. That is, in this and other similar cases, my position as an expatriate was thematized by the research participants themselves, and comparisons between my native and current home country were drawn in the discussion of local school practices. In other cases, the research participants have told massive amounts of information about current developments in Hungarian education. Doing so, my ‘otherness’ has been emphasized by them telling me facts that all local Hungarians would be expected to know.

In Finland, recording the interviews in English and not in Finnish framed the fieldwork setting as a conversation with a foreigner. Research participants often asked me about my progress in learning Finnish thus positioning me as a recent immigrant getting familiarized with one of the state languages but not yet being able to conduct an interview in Finnish. Again, my ‘otherness’ triggered detailed descriptions about school routines and the education system. Since I was not even expected to understand the signs on the wall, research participants provided me with translations and explanations.

Towards a more symmetric research setting

My overall impression is that my minority status has been beneficial to the research both in Hungary and Finland. First, I have been labeled as a foreigner with the capacity of sharing insights into different cultural approaches to education with the research participants.

I have been asked a lot about Hungary in Finland and vice versa; that is, I have become ‘a research participant of the research participants’.

This situation has enhanced a more symmetric research setting and a more lively and bidirectional discussion. Further, as a reaction to my ‘otherness’, research participants have made efforts to articulate their experiences in a way that included an outsider point of view. Not taking many things for granted, the discussions covered several topics and reflections that would generally be left untouched in the discussions of ‘local and native’ people. In Finland, it sometimes happened to us that we could not find an English word immediately and used circumscriptions or a Finnish term instead. That is, in the conversations with research participants, neither of us could take the position of a ‘fully competent native speaker’, and we both could experience and reflect on the limitations of our multilingual repertoires.


Read the blog entry in hungary: Változatosság a másik oldalról


Tamás Péter Szabó