Immigration, integration, and learning Finnish the hard way

Last week YLE (the main broadcaster here in Finland) published an article about the Finnish language courses that unemployed foreigners here in Finland have to attend and the overall benefit of them. I started one of these course 3-4 weeks ago, so was interested to read this piece and respond with some thoughts of my own about some of the good and not-so-good things about the course. YLE got in touch with me last Friday and asked if I would like to record an interview - some of which they would use on a news piece the following week. This would be a great opportunity for me to discuss the topic and maybe get my face on the TV! From the tone of the original article it seemed that the focus of the piece was going to focus on the negative side of things, so during my first interview last Friday I tried to make my responses as positive and constructive as possible.

On the following Monday YLE got back in touch and wanted to discuss some further points. We arranged another interview via Skype, and again the focus of the questions was on things that hadn't worked or that I didn't like. As this was the way they wanted to set the piece up I answered honestly while trying to be constructive and we discussed not only the course itself but also some points made in some of my earlier blog posts about the difficulties I've encountered here.

As it turns out, I ended up recording nearly 50 minutes worth of stuff and maybe two to three minutes of that was actually aired in the final edits. There was a brief set-up on Monday for the main piece which was shown on Tuesday.

Monday 3rd March appearance (I'm on just after the 7 minute mark). Tuesday 4th March appearance.

As my on-screen time was limited, I wanted to expand upon my answers and give some context and thoughts on the whole situation.

The clip used in the interview, as well as the first part of the second interview, are me discussing points from my blog regarding the issues I encountered when I first moved here - the poor process, lack of assistance, mis-information, long waiting and processing times etc - all of which can be read about in my previous posts.

The second clip in the second interview was specifically about the language course that I'm on and I had been asked about what I thought could be done better or improved upon, and this is where I wanted to elaborate slightly.

Firstly, I have to acknowledge that as a foreigner here, I'm very lucky to be afforded the opportunity to study the language. It's a million miles away from English, so learning was going to be an eventual must. As foreigners, we're lucky that the government provides this. Not all people want to be there (unemployment benefits depend on you attending), but as someone who wants to be here long-term, it's definitely a plus and is welcomed by myself. I also want to mention a point I saw on the comments section of the original article where a few people are complaining about the fact the courses are all done in Finnish i.e. everything, including instructions and explanations, is done in the language you don't know and are there to learn. Now whether this is a good or bad approach is completely down to the teacher and the individuals in the class - it will personally work for some students, but not for others. It's also done because normally in these classes there is no one common language and the teacher can't sit there and translate everything they've said in to multiple other languages to cater to every person there. I'm personally very lucky - I'm in a class where the majority do actually speak English and we have a very good and understanding teacher. When speaking in Finnish he's very animated and gesticulates, draws, writes - whatever it takes for everyone to get what he's saying/asking. But if/when anyone is stuck, he can revert to English to explain to us. I'm bemused on a daily basis, but I can work through it with the people around me and the support of said teacher.

But, as per the original article, do these courses really benefit foreigners? There is no definitive 'yes' or 'no' answer as it depends on the context and situation. On a personal level, yes, I believe the courses do benefit pretty much everyone that attends - you're learning the language of the country you live in - that's a good thing no matter what. On a professional / work-related level, no, I don't think the courses are particularly beneficial - and there are various reasons for this.

The courses are arranged by the unemployment office here in Finland. Once you've been offered a place, you have to attend or your benefits get stopped. The course forms part of an 'integration programme' each unemployed foreigner gets when they register as being unemployed and claiming any kind of benefits. Now the ultimate aim is to get all of us unemployed in to a job and paying taxes etc (which pretty much all of us want to do anyway), but the courses do not cater or aim towards this. You're taught Finnish as if you were just there to solely learn the language and nothing else. There is a lot of focus on grammar and the million or so way verbs can end and change depending on the context or the way a question is asked - all things that would come with time anyway. I went in to the course not even knowing the full alphabet or numbers, but this was skipped over and only visited when a couple of people on the course mentioned it as we were being asked questions and had no idea of the actual words/phrases being used in the first place.

One day in each week moves away from language learning and focuses on what I would describe as 'social studies'. Learning about the history of Finland, it's geography and such. Again, in a normal class, maybe useful. But to me, someone trying to learn the actual language and find work - zero importance or usefulness. The class is taught well and I appreciate that this is being tied in with learning new words etc, but never in my professional career will I ever need to know the length or width of Finland, or how Finland came to be, or it's wars with Sweden and Russia.

These days could be much better used by allowing those of us with professions to go and do something work-related. Spend time online researching companies, looking for jobs, or even doing something that relates to our profession directly - I have a fellow student who works in HR, so why not an online course about HR related things in Finland such as employment laws etc - things we'd need to know when trying to secure jobs in Finnish companies.

In addition to this 'social studies' day this week, we also attended the local university. As part of the students' courses they had produced exhibitions, talks and demonstrations on certain subjects, and various classes from my school were carted down there. The problem is that all of the things we were shown were aimed at the lowest denominator i.e. at someone who knew NOTHING. I attended talks that told me about healthy eating (someone genuinely stood there and told me, as seriously as they could possibly be, that carrots are good and burgers are bad - DUH!), how much alcohol I should/shouldn't be consuming, what to do if I need a doctor and such-like things. There were even rooms on sexual health, showing grown adults how to put a condom on, and a room on mental health/wellbeing where we were told how we shouldn't be ashamed if we're feeling sad etc.

Now some of this is potentially useful to a minority of people from certain countries or cultures, but this is stuff that I, and a lot of others in my class, learnt when we were teenagers at school. And to make things slightly worse it was told to us by students nearly half my own age, and in a genuinely condescending and patronising way - as if we were all actually stupid and not aware of these VERY simple things. Again, this could have been a day spent doing really useful and productive things, but was wasted and was actually infuriating and, at times, even felt soul-destroying.

I'm not too sure what the figures are, but the Finnish government pumps a lot of money in to this project. The intentions are admirable, but the execution of it and how the money is spent is not so. These courses, as with any 'product' offered by any company/organisation, should be invested in correctly and not just for the sake of doing it - if you're going to invest large sums of money, strive for that little bit more and really offer something GREAT, not just something that ticks a box. If the government truly wants people to learn and to then get jobs and contribute to society, they should look at the courses and what they actually offer people. To make people want to learn and to invigorate them on a daily basis the courses/product needs to be engaging, interesting, responsive and rewarding. Just like in business, if you make a poorly developed product that doesn't give the consumer what they want/need, they will grow to resent it and won't want to come back and use it again.

And finally, a supporter and fellow blogger friend of mine has also written a follow-up piece to this over at his site Migrant Tales. Go check that out, too.