Friday, 11 June 2010

Paper session 12 - Migration, integration, and language education policies - stake-holders’ views to language proficiency

(by Sari Pöyhönen & Mirja Tarnanen)
I'm sorry this posting comes quite late. I hope there are people who will read this blog after the Summer School. This blog entry is reporting the main points of the paper presented with some ‘exclamations and questions coming from the writer’. Sari Pöyhönen promised to send the PP-slides of the presentation for those who ask it via email.

On language situation in Finland
Finland is often described as a bilingual but otherwise rather homogenous country, yet this has never been true. First of all, Finland has always been multilingual. Finland is also often seen consisting of ‘the majority and the minorities’, and we often forget how heterogeneous the minorities are.

These misconceptions may are partly caused by the statistics that do not reflect the facts. For example, when reporting the mother language, people have to choose ONE language to be reported as their mother tongue.

Finnish migration policy
At the moment Finnish integration act is being elaborated, yet here are some points that were brought up: In Finland, laws many often treat migrants as monolingual people. There has been strong criticism against policy: It is assimilation, not integration. Low success in target language (meaning of course, Finnish!) has been also criticized heavily.

Aims: analysing migration policy with the data that consists of expert interviews conducted in 2009 (Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Employment and the Economy, local settings with coordinators of migration and integration education for adult immigrants and language educators working in integration education) and media data (national and local newspaper oct 2008 – oct 2009).

The key questions were:

1) How is language proficiency constructed by the experts in discussing integration to Finnish society, especially in terms of labour market?
2) What kinds of definitions of language proficiency and integration are represented in the media discussion?

Content analysis and discourse analysis were used as the methods for analyzing the data. The focus in the analysis was: How language proficiency is understood and how sufficient proficiency for different purposes is verbalized?

Pöyhönen and Tarnanen approach integration mainly from the political point of view and how it is represented through discourse. Integration can be seen as a two-way phenomenon (both the influence of the ethnic minority and immigrant receiving population) – in this paper the majority’s perspective is in the focus, yet doesn’t ignore the minority.

Findings from experts’ views
The experts gave language proficiency various meanings that can be divided in four categories:

1. Requirement: the language is an asset to integrate into the labour market, it is a sign of being a qualified worker. You have it or not, language proficiency has two ‘states’: on and off.
2. Tool: tool to integrate into other spheres of life, not an absolute value. Obviously proficiency in Finnish is the tool, other languages are not mentioned.
3. Ownership and linguistic market place: languages hierarchies became visible, the ‘order’ seems to be: national languages, English, migrants’ native languages. Finnish as a lingua franca – a problematic resource, which becomes apparent in this quote (by ministry expert) “We have examples of migrants who socialize with each other in who knows what kind of insufficient Finnish, and thus cannot make progress with their language skills”.
4. Grammar & normativity: emphasis on knowing rules, vocabulary and pronunciation, “When you teach grammar, you teach society as well”.

The experts saw immigrants as two groups: asylum seekers, refugees OR work-based immigrants. Probably stating the obvious, this polarized view, I must say, is exactly the same among ordinary Finns. However, when talking about ‘immigrants’ people tend to talk only about the first group after which they probably remember ‘the other group’ which preferably is a highly educated English speaker working in the field of technology. (I can’t help that this paper provoked all the voices of stereotyping in me the Finns have on immigrants.)

The immigrants were also seen as ‘at-risk groups’, such as elderly (defined as people over 50!), adolescent drop-outs, frustrated academics and some ethnic groups.
The experts also pointed out some ‘ideal groups’ which are quickly adjustable professional qualifications, motivated and stubborn language learners as well as positive workers.
--> Language proficiency (of course in Finnish) as a key determinant of various groups.

In the media data four levels of policy was recognised

1. Migration policy
2. Labour policy
3. Education policy: integration education how it is unsuccessful, do they need to learn Swedish,
4. Cultural policy: multiculturalism, language proficiency VS. multilingualism “concentrate on Finnish”

What gets obvious, again, is that when talking about language profiency of the immigrants, the discussion is on THE language, Finnish. Successful immigration is not seen as a two way process, but instead it is the immigrants who are the only one’s playing the active role and reason to failure, when it happens. In addition, the assimilation should happen as quickly as possible.

Taking a short-cut to some other concluding thoughts, in a bullet list:
• Language proficiency as an on-off phenomenon (other language skills are ignored, and for example, using both English and Finnish is not a sign of language knowledge, but rather seen as messy language usage)
• Threshold level B1 vs. lifelong learning process: Possibilities to develop language proficiency before and after B1 (CEFR), Who sets the goals and for what?

My own thoughts went (again) to the D/deaf in Finland because for me situation of deaf immigrants highlights some of the problems pointed in this paper. In a case of a deaf immigrant, depending on the country the person is coming from, it can’t be taken for granted that the person has a ‘system for communication’ that can be defined as a language or languages at all. Who have the tools to recognize what languages is that person using? Does that person have a language to communicate with possibly family members? Is it our concern to provide the family with a language they can share? What are the spoken languages the person has been using before? Which medium of those languages is used, spoken or written? What language a deaf person needs in order to become a happy, active citizen in Finnish society? What is the group the person wants to identify in Finland – which group is most likely to provide him/her with support and social life? (In many cases it is the group of Finnish sign language users, yet it is important to know that this person does not have skills in Finnish sign language and that Finnish sign language is not a signed version of Finnish.) And more and more questions… which take me to a question: What kind of similarities do other minorities (inside minorities) have with this case I have in my mind? What kind of participation (and with what languages) is actually the most beneficial for immigrants and ‘the receiving country’ when not demanding “as fast as possible, as little money as possible”, i.e. with a very short-sighted attitude?

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