Language, language and language!

20.4.2017 10:00

One of the first lessons learnt from PROMEQ New Start Finland! is the vital importance of language in research. Language presents major challenges to the collection of data on the health and wellbeing status of refugees, the marketing and delivery of social interventions promoting resettlement and communication within our international research team. Let me explain!

Operationalising an empirical study involving five different languages i.e. Finnish, English, Arabic, Kurdish and Persian requires considerable problem solving skills. Marketing and research studies highlight the many problems associated with cross cultural studies (Buil 2012). African and Middle Eastern refugees and quota refugees in our study range from highly educated men and women who already speak several languages to persons who are functionally illiterate.  Collecting and analysing data in different languages through methods such as surveys and focus group interviews has meant the employment of professional translation services based in Helsinki. Special consent forms have been designed in different languages and for participants who are illiterate. Refugees have been recruited to the study as peer researchers to assist the research team negotiate communication and cultural issues as well as co-facilitate focus groups. Language has proven to be risky business as words or expressions may lose meaning through the translation process. Official Finnish terms are not always translatable to another cultural contexts or languages. Such experiences have reinforced the team’s appreciation of good translation for the production of quality surveys and the accurate representation of findings.

Acquisition of the Finnish language is of vital importance to refugees in the quest for social equity. According to Finland’s official integration strategy, in order for immigrants to integrate effectively, they must gain sufficient language skills for education and work. Immigrant integration into Finland society is steered by the Act on the Promotion of Immigrant Integration (Seppelin, 2010) however the Ministry of Employment and the Economy admits that not enough is known about the effect of language acquisition on immigrant employment, education and social participation. The ability to speak Finnish is instrumental for gaining regulated and meaningful employment, applying for university courses and extending one’s personal and social networks. The Finnish government and local municipalities provide language instruction for registered refugees, however stay-at-home mothers, older refugees and refugees who have recently moved to Kuopio from other parts of Finland, experience difficulties accessing courses because they are outside the active labour market, not registered for an integration plan or just have difficulty getting motivated. PROMEQ survey results will evidence the linguistic capital of recent refugees living in Eastern Finland and provide a baseline for services to work from.

New Start Finland’s! language programs for women, run in partnership with professionals from the City of Kuopio and Kompassi, Settlement House, will commence in May 2017. The Finnish language will be taught in small groups. Free childcare will be available to facilitate the women’s participation. The city of Kuopio provides a real life interactive classroom for ongoing informal education. Evaluation of the program will tell us more about language acquisition from the viewpoint of women. While more general information on how language impacts on resettlement opportunities will be generated from three other New Start Finland programs targeting, social participation (Anti Contemporary Art Festival), employability (Pohjois-Karjalan Sosiaaliturvayhdistys ry) and access to higher education (UEF and Student Union). Future blogs will reflect upon the learning gained from each of these interventions.

Finally, the New Start Finland! research team faces challenges as to its own linguistic diversity. The team is made up of Australian, Hungarian, and Finnish researchers and English is the common operational language. There are valid arguments for and against the increased use of the English language within Finnish academia (Mauranen 2010; Haarman and Holman 2001). To date team diversity has meant the ability to capitalise on the different skill and knowledge sets of the researchers and their international networks. Working across languages and cultures on a daily basis is therefore a constant reminder of the importance of cultural sensitivity and the need for participatory approaches when working with refugees.

Janet Anand
Professor of International Social Work
University of Eastern Finland


Act on the Promotion of ImmigrantIntegration. (1386/2010).

Buil, I., de Chernatony, L., & Martínez, E. (2012). Methodological issues in cross-cultural research: An overview and recommendations. Journal of Targeting, Measurement and Analysis for Marketing, 20 (3-4), 223-234.

Haarmann, H., & Holman, E. (2001). The impact of English as a language of science in Finland and its role for the transition to network society. Contributions to the Sociology of Language, 84, 229-260.

Mauranen, A. (2010). Features of English as a lingua franca in academia. Helsinki English Studies, 6, 6-28.

Seppelin, M. (2010). Act on the integration of immigrants and reception of asylum seekers. Making success of integrating immigrants into the labour market, 1-5.

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