Long reads


Uncovering the hidden language skills of children – immigrants make for more international schools

By clinging to the myth of monolingualism, Finland fails to benefit from the language skills of its multilingual communities. While the languages included school curriculums are valued, the largest minority languages in Finland, such as Russian, Estonian, Arabic and Somali, are left underappreciated. It is high time to change this attitude, both due to the needs of Finnish working life as well as the intrinsic value of languages, writes journalist Reetta Räty, member of a research project on multilingualism at schools in East Helsinki.

Last January, a new nail salon opened in the Hakaniemi district of Helsinki. I had the chance to pop in on my way to work one day. I learned that the place is ran by a woman from Vietnam and her boyfriend, who also has a Vietnamese background. She persuaded me to take a seat in one of the plush and luxurious chairs to allow her boyfriend to give me a gel manicure. At an opening sale price, too! It took about an hour to complete my nails. During that time, conversation in the salon flowed in Finnish, English, Swedish, Vietnamese and Chinese. Why the many languages? As it turned out, the man doing my nails had lived in Malmö for 15 years before recently moving to Finland; therefore, Swedish was our shared language. The woman and I conversed in Finnish. Amongst themselves, the couple used Vietnamese. I exchanged pleasantries in Chinese with another patron, as she was from Shanghai, where I had previously lived for some time and learned a little of the language. We also spoke Finnish, which happened to be one of her work languages in her job as an air stewardess. English also entered the conversation while we discussed ideas for an Instagram account for the nail salon and the question of which languages to include on the business cards.

My experience at the nail salon is a perfect example of everyday multilingualism, where languages are intertwined and used according to the linguistic resources of each speaker.

We all carry our individual linguistic histories with us: languages we have studied, countries we have lived in, people we have dated, TV shows watched, years spent abroad as an exchange student or au pair, distinctive regional dialects, international work assignments and employers, past status as a refugee, travels due to our parents’ careers, voluntary changes of country or forced escapes. Language skills go beyond a simple list of languages studied at school. Nor are they a list of languages that we can speak “perfectly”. Instead, our language skills are a combination of all the linguistic fragments picked up over the course of our lives. Even within a single language, linguistic competence varies between speakers. No single speaker has command of an “entire” language, but rather their unique collection of “fragments”. I have come to understand this mindset while participating in a research project on multilingualism together with linguists from the University of Helsinki. For instance, a member of my team, Heini Lehtonen, has used this approach in her research (for details, see e.g. Blommaert 2010). This perspective on language skills has served as both a useful framework for our project, as well as a tool to help me investigate how we discuss language skills and observe the everyday multilingualism of my environment.

I ended up joining the project on multilingual communities in East Helsinki after visiting a few of the schools in the area as part of my work group in the programme Is Finland Becoming Polarized? I wrote about my experiences in Vuosaari in an article published on the Kone Foundation website. The discrepancy between public debate and reality was glaring. Public discussion on the topic spoke of schools with a high percentage of “foreign language” students from immigrant backgrounds. The tone was nearly unanimously problem-oriented. Discussion revolved around issues such as how the schools have poor reputations, native Finns avoid sending their children to them, and the Finnish language skills of their students are poor or varying. The classrooms are restless and the learning results produced subpar. Discourse of this kind is also favoured by our leading politicians. A news piece by Yle advised parents to check their school’s situation concerning the number of enrolled foreign-language students (2 December 2015). The tone of voice is clear: while international schools are esteemed and valued, multilingual schools are treated with suspicion.

The reality I encountered in the schools themselves was a polar opposite to this portrayal. The children can hardly be considered “foreigners” as I am able to speak Finnish with everyone. The diversity of languages spoken amongst the children and staff members is astonishing – or completely ordinary in a multilingual community. A single classroom may contain ten or even sixteen different native languages. Meanwhile, the teachers are often pedagogical marvels, as large group sizes and children with various special needs are all acknowledged. Our partner schools employ teachers who possess language awareness and have policies in place to support multilingualism. My experience is that their special professional skills are not necessarily recognised, as their success is measured through the same way as that of the children: testing the learning results. Many valuable social and language skills remain hidden when the focus is on assessing grades in traditional school subjects.

How common, then, is multilingualism? The answer is far from simple. As schools and residential areas are fairly polarized, the situation varies greatly within Finland. In the city of Helsinki, the number of reported native languages is 130. In Finland, a person may only report one native language. In other words, the statistics do not reveal accurate information on language spoken at home or multilingualism. Even bilingual Swedish-speaking Finns must define whether their native language is Finnish or Swedish. Monolingualism is the only state of affairs recognised by our legislation. This presents a clear problem. The law serves to reinforce a prevailing myth of monolingualism, while in reality, Finland is becoming increasingly linguistically diverse. Put simply, the trend is this: the number of speakers of Finnish and Swedish will decrease, while the share of other languages will grow. The population growth of Finland is taking place under the label “other” – but even in this group, Finnish is used in daily speech, making claims of an invasion by speakers of foreign languages hardly justified.

Some multilingual Finns joke about their labelling as “other language speakers”. This group may also include native speakers of Sami languages, as language statistics often hold the false premise that all Finns must have one native language, either Finnish, Swedish or “other”.

According to statistics, there are 350,000 multilingual people in Finland. This figure is blind to everyday multilingualism. It does not recognise the children of parents with differing native languages or people with two equally strong native tongues, or groups such as Estonians and Russians who work in Finland but are registered in their home countries.


Our multilingualism project in the Rastila neighbourhood in the district of Vuosaari is titled New Finnish Languages of Eastern Helsinki. My colleagues in the project are professor Janne Saarikivi, researcher Heini Lehtonen and project leader, professor Jyrki Kalliokoski. Our team also includes community artists Anne Siirtola and Heidi Hänninen. Our methodology is a community-oriented activity analysis, in other words the research is carried out in cooperation with the community under investigation. Vuosaari is an ideal location to study and learn more about multilingualism. It is one the fastest-growing districts in Helsinki and home to some 39,000 people. There are over 60 reported languages spoken at homes in the area. Major language groups include Russian, Estonian, Arabic, Somali, Kurdish, Persian and Thai. About 14 percent of the population of Helsinki reports a home language other than Finnish or Swedish, and in the Rastila neighbourhood in Vuosaari, this number is close to a third of the residents. It is typical of a classroom in Rastila that well over half of the children have “other” languages. In other words, a majority of the children speak, in addition to Finnish and any languages taught at school, one or several native languages of their parents or grandparents. It is also relatively common that the children have adopted languages or fragments of them that are spoken by their peers or picked up at countries they have attended school prior to arriving in Finland, such as Swedish or German.

It seems absurd that in Finland, it is precisely these children whose language skills are the greatest concern?


In our research project, we aim to dismantle the concept of language skills and the norm of monolingualism, thereby participating in the discourse on multilingualism. It often seems to me, however, that such discourse is rare outside the sphere of academic research – that is, unless enthusiastic statements by politicians on bringing forward the age when Finnish children begin learning English can be considered such discourse.

We videotape and record the classes we hold at schools and interview students and staff, including teachers, special needs assistants, multilingualism counsellors, school social workers and native language teachers. We discuss how the children themselves assess and value their linguistic resources. We also investigate how the relationship of students to their “own languages”, as they call the languages spoken at home, changes as a result of the activity analysis.

We have already seen clear indications that the linguistic self-confidence of children grows when their hidden skills are acknowledged. In our classes, for example, children who are speakers of Arabic or Russian are encouraged to teach their “own alphabet” to their classmates, in other words the Arabic or Cyrillic alphabet. We also decorate the school’s walls with artworks designed together with community artists, in order to make multilingualism visible in the physical school environment. The activity analysis is founded on a flexible attitude to language skills. We do not ask whether a child can speak a language “proficiently” or “poorly”. In our view, the monolingual children and teachers who are able to effortlessly live in a multilingual community also possess a unique language skill. And what a marvellous skill that is! Precisely the kind that is emphasised when discussing the skillset needed in the working life of the 21st century. But can such a skill be identified in practice?

Learning and appreciating languages is essential not only due to their usefulness, as in the case of world languages such as Russian or Arabic, but because of their intrinsic value. Each language is also a way of thinking, and in the case of children, a vital part of their identity. People have the right to hold any one or several languages in their hearts.

Finland’s official status as a bilingual country could be expected to help in understanding everyday multilingualism. In practice, this is not necessarily the case, as Finnish bilingualism is a kind of divided monolingualism. As a rule, schools and daycares are monolingual in either Swedish or Finnish. Even as adults, we are hesitant to hold meetings or get-togethers in a multilingual manner: if anyone present does not speak Swedish or Finnish, we turn to English as a shared language instead of accepting multilingualism in everyday situations. The schoolchildren of East Helsinki are more talented than many adults in navigating between languages, partly because they have not internalised the norm of monolingualism and the concept that without fluent command of a language, it is best to keep one’s mouth shut. International companies could learn a few things from these schools, and Finnish society would benefit from getting to know multilingualism better.

A tip from the children: In Finland, it is perfectly acceptable to start a conversation in Finnish, regardless of the appearance of the other person. It is insulting and slightly foolish to constantly attempt to converse in English with people born in the country, due to the stereotype of Finnish-speakers having blue eyes and fair skin. The basic fact is that language skills or nationality are not outwardly visible.

To be sure, language skills are valued in Finland. But what kind of language skills? The prevalent language ideologies can be inspected through, for instance, the so-called language platter of courses offered by a school. Do the elective subjects include German, French, Spanish, even Chinese? How about Arabic, Bengali, Russian or Hindi? All languages with enormous numbers of speakers and necessary for trade, cross-cultural communication and the expansion of new spaces in our way of thinking? What kind of language skills are valued and emphasised? What remains hidden?

I do not think that multilingual schools are a paradise that we should aspire to reach. The schools always have their own issues, the lack of resources and appreciation manifests as fatigue, and there is concern over the children and their well-being. Teachers say that the problems faced by the children are usually caused by challenges posed by a weak socio-economic status, not ethnicity or language. Finnish schools are very different from one another, and it is no longer an accurate starting point that all children share the same relationship to the dominant language used in teaching. However, this is not a cause for concern. It is an increasingly common state of affairs that presents a new reality: a rich and valuable multilingualism, and new modes of thought and ways to structure our surrounding world.

Reetta Räty