Language guides give Finnish-learning first aid

When a large number of asylum seekers arrived in Finland in autumn 2015, volunteers jumped in to teach them Finnish. Since then, the training sessions arranged for the volunteer language guides have filled lecture room after lecture room.

The idea of organising a training and discussion session for volunteer language guides first arose at the discipline of Finnish language and culture. The discipline is intended for international students and immigrants, so students have experienced moving into a new language and culture the hard way, and the teachers have seen first-hand how Finnish is learned as a second language.

 “I felt like we had to do something, that it was our responsibility to react," reminisces University Instructor Sari Päivärinne.

The discipline organised the first training session in April 2016, funded by the Department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies. Word of the event spread, and approximately 150 participants showed up.

 “We originally intended the session to be a briefing for students interested in becoming language guides. It was a surprise to see that we didn't have that many students, and that instead, many experienced teachers were interested," says Päivärinne.

Student Trainee Hannamaija Matila was employed by the discipline for six months, tasked with coordinating the training sessions organised for the language guides. The second session, organised in November, was also very popular. The sessions, which gather together the talkative language guides, have run out of both space and time. There is a great need for peer support.


Social responsibility

According to Sari Päivärinne, refugee reception centres don’t have the resources to hire formally qualified teachers of Finnish. However, it is important that new arrivals are exposed to the Finnish language as soon as possible, even before they can get a place in an official Finnish language course. Integration training and the related professional Finnish language teaching are only available for people who have been granted asylum.

Almost anyone can teach key daily phrases and basic vocabulary to a person who's just getting started with language studies. Recent arrivals are highly motivated to study, and the volunteer language teachers have been able to tap into their enthusiasm. The University of Helsinki has developed materials to help the volunteer language guides and support their teaching. The Toisto method used in the Suomen kieli sanoo tervetuloa (“The Finnish language says welcome”) project has been featured in a programme from the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

 “We think of the work of our language guides as kind of first aid,” says Sari Päivärinne.

Most of the participants are retired teachers.

Students are in the minority among the language guides. Most of the participants are retired teachers who have teaching in their blood. The language guides teach at reception centres, Caisa Cultural Centre, the Monika Multicultural Women’s Association, libraries and at the Finnish Red Cross. The number of different organisations offering language teaching surprised the organisers of the training session.

 “We keep finding new language guides through various organisations and reception centres, and we would like to reach them all,” explains Matila.

A comprehensive list of different institutions would be useful and would also help the organisers reach the language guides for new training sessions.

 “I see this as an opportunity to help even though I personally don’t have time to head out into the field. We should survey our opportunities in more detail and also find out whether other Finnish universities are involved in similar activities. In Germany, one of the stated duties of universities is to support volunteering,” Päivärinne points out.


Flexible classes, motivated students

Hannamaija Matila has taught asylum seekers at Caisa Cultural Centre.

 “Students come to class of their own free will, so they’re very motivated. It’s fun to teach them, and we have a good time in class. The teaching situation itself is fairly universal, even though students may come from different backgrounds.”

Teaching must be flexible, and the teacher must be able to improvise, as there may be different extremes among the students. One may be illiterate, while another may have an academic degree and extensive language skills. The Toisto method is specifically developed to consider a variety of education backgrounds and extensive turnover among language learners in class.

 “Toisto is based on talking and repetition. Videos of model teaching situations can be viewed online, and the sessions can be taught in any order," Sari Päivärinne explains.

There is a constant demand for volunteers. Hannamaija Matila encourages everyone who is interested in teaching to try being a language guide.

 “Being a language guide is a good way to see what teaching is like. If you can handle this, you can teach anywhere.”


Volunteers make a difference

The intention is to make the training for the language guides a permanent part of the discipline’s activities. The volunteers keep in touch via email lists, and training sessions are organised a few times a year. There has also been talk of a monthly clinic for language guides. The discipline has recruited retired teachers of Finnish as a foreign language to help via email. The language guides can email them for advice on grammar issues or practical teaching tips.

Sari Päivärinne wants to emphasise the important role the volunteers play in teaching language to asylum seekers and supporting them in general.

 “I was surprised to realise how many volunteers have been involved in the work with asylum seekers. Their work should be highlighted much more.”

Hannamaija Matila adds, “Without volunteers, autumn 2015 would have been complete chaos.”


The next training session for volunteer language guides will be held on 24 March, 13.00–16.00. Further information can be requested from Hannamaija Matila: