• Hats off to multilingual families! - Teachers, schools and multilingual pupils

    My blog will start with five important considerations.

    I’ve been thinking about schools and teachers, here in London and in Finland, in 2016, and particularly of that Finnish teacher who said in an official Finnish report* that it would have been great it they could have been properly prepared for this change. Meaning this change of having ‘new’ children in their schools – ‘new’ children with migrant backgrounds and with different home languages. And this teacher continued and said, ‘so that we wouldn’t be in this pickle now’.

    That’s my translation. To be ‘in a soup’ (‘olla liemessä’ in Finnish) translates roughly in my view to ‘being in a pickle’. And I am thinking of all these children, their families and their teachers in Finland and in the UK and decide to focus on five key points:

    1.Nothing new under the sun
    2.Language matters
    3.‘Multilingualism’ rather than ‘multiculturalism’
    4.Evidence of speeding up the processes of learning school language

    My writing draws on my professional training and work in the UK. It is informed by my own research and by my students’ research in universities and schools. It is fuelled by my own life experiences as a migrant (from Finland to England) and by my sons’ experiences of growing up bilingually in London, and learning English and Finnish, and by my grandsons’ bilingual experiences in Helsinki where they are learning Finnish and English.

    I’m enjoying this writing process because today we can benefit from research around the world. From various studies we know that migrant families want the best for their own children. This best includes a wish for their children to do well in school and reach the highest levels of school language. We also know that too often home languages fade away during the school years as the school language begins to dominate. We also know that is does not need to be like this; the two languages, when nurtured, encouraged and maintained, can work together to raise the overall school achievement.

    Nothing new under the sun

    Migration is not new. The idea that Western countries or places were once homogenous – everyone spoke the same language, for example – does not stand to scrutiny. English language, and its vocabulary alone, reveals the comings and goings of different rulers and migrants during the last two thousand years, from Romans, to Vikings, Saxons, Normans, Roma, and so on. The pace of migration, the numbers of migrating people and the routes of migration, have, however, increased and diversified since the 1950s. For example there are now more Finns living in the UK than ever before.

    The case of Finland may feel different because the overall numbers are smaller. Yet, other languages – other than the official Finnish and Swedish – have also always been used on a daily basis in school children’s homes; these have included the nine Sami languages and, of course, for centuries Romany. Sadly these languages can now be found in the UNESCO’s list of endangered languages. Tatars have lived in the Helsinki area for the past one hundred years, and when I was growing up in Espoo, near Helsinki, I remember two Jewish girls in my primary school showing off their Yiddish language skills in the playground. In the 1970s the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ arrived, and later Iranians, Ingrians, Somalis, Russians, Estonians.

    I find myself asking what exactly is ‘new’ and when did it become ‘new’?

    If in the past teachers did not recognise their pupils’ home languages, and expected them to assimilate quickly, or struggle quietly on their own, because the overall numbers were smaller, that does not justify their practice. This is as true to the UK as it is to Finland. If the current wave of migration nudges all teachers to re-evaluate and improve their practice which will lead to better outcomes later, that’s great. A positive outcome. A good thing.

    It seems to me that current ‘new’ issues about minorities, such as new linguistic minorities, are not really about minorities. They are about us. We are all connected and what hurts one part, hurts all.

    Language matters

    Language matters and the terms we use to describe people, practice and pedagogy, also matters. It is not easy to find labels for migrants, minority ethnic groups, linguistic minorities or how one might describe the support provided in schools. In Finland ‘maahanmuuttaja’ has gained acceptance. Or ‘maahanmuuttajataustainen’. Loosely translated this means ‘in-mover’ – someone who moves into a country – or whose background consists of ‘in-movers’. Yet, many American or other European children (French, British, German…) are not identified as ‘in-movers’ in Finland. On the other hand children who were born in Finland but whose parents were not, are identified as ‘in-movers’. In fact one parent born elsewhere is sufficient for a child to be identified as having an ‘in-mover background’. How many generations will this last? At what point are these children going to be accepted as ‘Finnish’?

    Multilingualism rather than multiculturalism

    Culture varies within every named group and subgroup. All of us are unique and where some love sauna and sausages, others make very different choices in their lives. To identify every Finnish person as loving sauna and sausages is rather silly. There are sound reasons to avoid cultural reductionism, i.e. to think that Finnish culture is about saunas and sausages, and nothing much beyond that. Similarly there is a need to avoid cultural determinism, i.e. that all Finns will have saunas and eat loads of sausages every week. When meeting new families or linguistic groups, it is helpful to recognise that culture plays a part in their lives but this is complicated and that schools’ approaches to multiculturalism may be in danger of becoming tokenistic. Not all people from India like samosas. Not everyone from Caribbean likes steel drums. Not all Muslim women wear headscarves. It is often easier to approach people’s lives by asking what languages they use and with whom and for what purpose.

    Evidence of speeding up the processes of learning school language

    There is now a wealth of evidence from different places around the world that shows that bilingualism has a positive impact on children’s cognitive development, on their problem solving – and perhaps even delaying Alzheimer’s in old age. ‘Bilingualism’ here does not mean equal fluency in two languages. Rather it means using two or more languages in their daily lives. Moreover, research evidence shows that a child who has a chance to make connections between his/her home languages and the school language, learns the school language faster. If teachers are truly committed to speeding up the process of learning the school language, they will provide maximum opportunities to use home languages at school.


    When my sons were born in London, I became very active in establishing a Finnish Saturday school for them. I wanted them to make personal relationships with other Finnish children, play in Finnish, read and write in Finnish, and connect with the Finnish community in England. Today there are 160 Finnish Schools around the world. And guess what? Other linguistic minorities do exactly the same. The whole world over. Particularly in urban areas. There are networks of Portuguese, Greek and Turkish schools around the world supported by their embassies. There are many, many others including Mandarin Chinese schools where they do much more than celebrate Chinese New Year and eat noodles.

    If teachers are interested in cultures, and in multiculturalism, these are the best places to visit to see what kinds of cultural practices are transported. Best places to form connections, friendships even. The other fascinating aspect is to see how much these communities value education, including learning the school language, whilst aiming to keep their own languages alive.

    Every time I visit these schools it takes my breath away to see their commitment. Hats off to them all.

    *Tuula Pirinen (toim.) ’Maahanmuuttajataustaiset oppijat suomalaisessa koulutusjärjestelmässä’. 2015. Kansallinen Koulutuksen Arviointikeskus

Friday, 12th February 2016