iassw logoSocial Dialogue #17

Populism and second language acquisition amongst Middle Eastern women living in Eastern Finland

Tiina Ahonen, Researcher, PROMEQ, University of Eastern Finland

Janet Anand, Leading Researcher, New Start Finland!, PROMEQ, University of Eastern Finland

Csilla Veszteg, Researcher, PROMEQ, University of Eastern Finland PROMEQ New Start Finland! University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio

The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Johanna Rastas and Anniina Tourunen, Multicultural Center Kompassi, Setlementt Puijola and Katja Kiflie Beka and Elina Asikainen, Integration Unit, the City of Kuopio.


Second language education has become a commodity often traded by nation states for refugee's access to social benefits, citizenship and in some cases, basic human rights (Edelsky, 2006). As a requirement of integration policy, migrants and refugees are often required to attend language classes in exchange for receipt of benefits. The number of language courses, programs and policies have expanded raising questions as to the quality, ethics and outcomes. This article highlights the highly political nature of language education and its role in developing and maintaining the nation state (Pennycook, 1990). Learning a language is connected to issues such as multiculturalism, bilingualism, minority education and internationalism and yet the inherent political and culture issues are relatively ignored by government and language education services. The acquisition of a second language is essential in achieving social equality however language education may unintentionally serve to facilitate the reproduction of social inequalities within a society. In many European counties, the emphasis on language acquisition reflects populist and nationalistic sentiments placing unrealistic pressure on migrants to demonstrate their willingness to assimilate and conform to the dominant culture and language. The reality is that large groups of refugees face server challenges and difficulties when acquiring a second language. The following case study illustrates how populist notions as to language acquisition must be challenged by social and community works dedicated to improve linguistic opportunities for Middle Eastern refugees and women in particular.

Refugees in Finland

In 2015 over 32,000 political refugees fled to Finland for political asylum and every year Eastern Finland receives quota refugees. Accurate regional or municipal data on refugees granted asylum in Eastern Finland is however difficult to obtain. National averages indicate that only 2% of population in Eastern Finland are immigrants. In Eastern Finland, migrant population groups have settled mainly in Kuopio, Mikkeli and Joensuu, the biggest cities of Eastern Finland.

The research project PROMEQ New Start Finland! initially sort to scope the impact of social marketing interventions on the health and wellbeing status of refugees granted asylum and quota refugees in regional Finland. As a result, an intervention involving language classes for Middle Eastern women was developed, piloted and evaluated. Refugees face significant barriers to equity and language acquisition plays a critical role in access to educational opportunities, employability and social inclusion, which result in negative health and wellbeing outcomes (Davidson et al. 2008). The effectiveness of service interventions to meet the needs of new refugees in regional Finland is under researched and largely unknown although the international literature demonstrates that new and more participatory approaches are needed to facilitate the integration of new refugees for the mutual benefit of all concerned (Buhin 2012; Kuusela 2014.).

Language acquisition

According to Finland's official integration strategy, in order for immigrants to integrate effectively, refugees must gain sufficient language skills for education and work. Immigrant integration into Finnish 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, access to language acquisition is not equal for all refugees. 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.

The language project PROMEQ New start Finland! targeted Arabic speaking refugee women. Refugee migration from Arabic countries has increased and in 2016, and it is not commonly known that Arabic has became the third largest foreign language group in Finland, surpassing Somali end English speakers population groups (Statistics of Finland 2017).

Source: Yle News Graphic 2017

Besides knowledge of Arabic, other criteria of the inclusion on the PROMEQ New Start Finland! language program were as following: 18-65 years old, woman, mother of small children (or other reason that has not participated in language courses), residing in Eastern Finland (pilot took its place in Kuopio) and arrived in Finland after 1.1.2014. Acquisition of the Finnish language is of vital importance to the social equity and most importantly is linked to social connectedness and feelings of inclusion. (Ager & Strang 2008.). Difficulties in language proficiency is identified as the number one problem affecting refugee well-being (Watkins, Razee & Richters 2012). However learning Finnish is notoriously difficult for newcomers due the unique origins of the language and insufficient language and translation services. Limited language proficiency leaves women who are mothers or who have domestic responsibilities at particular risk of isolation and marginalisation (Riggs et al. 2012). It is well is documented that migrant women face difficulties participating in language courses. A complex set of gendered, cultural as well as socio-political factors, act as barriers for refugee women to gain access to language education (Watkins et. al 2012). Studies (Riggs et. al.2012) have demonstrated that refugee women are willing and well-motivated to learn, but at the same time find it difficult to attend classes, because of domestic and caring responsibilities. Other barriers include the availability of culturally appropriate childcare and the gender mix of the language classes considered inappropriate by the women's husband or other family members. Women may also be been concerned that part time study affect welfare payments. It is common for refugee families to prioritize attendance at language classes for the male of the family. (Riggs et. al. 2012.)

Many refugee women from Middle Eastern countries have no previous access to formal education and are illiterate in their own language. Women's opportunities for education in their country of origin may have been limited because of the socio-political situation and cultural practices and gendered roles, i.e. traditional expectations locate women's role within the home. Besides taking care of children at home, women often have the responsibility to take care of elderly relatives and manage household finances, groceries and maintenance. Limited educational experience mean that some women many be unfamiliar with basic skills such as holding a pen or unable or using a dictionary. Such limitations restrict women's successful engagement with formal language programs rolled out by the state as part of Finland's social integration policies. A recent study by Naif (2017) found that adult Arab learners' face significant challenges when learning Finnish as a second language. Besides difficulties in grammar, reading and writing the lack of communication due to the reserved character of Finnish people and difficulties in integrating into Finnish host society are considered a problem both in practical learning as well as motivation to learn. Communication with native speakers is an essential ingredient for better second language learning. However, communication opportunities with natives are rather limited for Arab learners. Having to adapt to an unfamiliar education system with no prior experience, in an unfamiliar environment and interacting with unfamiliar people, coupled with ongoing emotional and psychosocial difficulties as part the migration process, makes formal learning a challenge. (Watkins, et al. 2012.)

Description the language program

New Start Finland's language program for women, is run in partnership with local services, the City of Kuopio and Multicultural Center Kompassi, Settlementt Puijola. The aim of the language program is to promote social integration through a language acquisition course based on social marketing principles. Social marketing is a not only a model of delivery services but involves a commitment to the consumer participation including the systematic scoping of needs, co-creation of services, tailoring of interventions and an understanding of the value or evaluation of the common outcomes for all concerned (Vaarama et. al. 2016). The language program was advertised through Multicultural Center Kompassi, Settlementt Puijola programs and promoted by the Social Workers, Integration Unit, City of Kuopio. The first pilot commenced, May 2017 with the recruitment of six Arabic speaking participants with assistance from the Kuopio immigration unit social workers. Social work involvement made it possible to target and reach out to stay-at-home mothers who had not had an opportunity to participate to language course previously. Recruitment strategy involved inviting women personally and offering childcare services during the course. Multicultural Center Kompassi, Settlementt Puijola enlisted Finnish volunteers to prove the childcare for participant's children. Native Finnish speakers conducted courses with assistance from Arabic interpreters. Using bilingual research assistants is an effective strategy to achieve cross-cultural linkages between professionals and ethnic minority participants to ensure their views are heard and needs identified (see Lee, Sulaiman-Hill & Thompson 2014).

In the beginning of the course, goals of the participants were elicited using a Goal Attainment Scale (GAS) (Turner-Stokes 2009). Participants had the opportunity to discuss their needs and aims with assistance from the Arabic interpreter. The aim of the GAS was to engage and motivate participants to work toward goals as well as consider the utility and possibilities of the course. Participants identified goals that were practical, including learning daily phrases of Finnish, computer use for completing online benefit applications, reserving doctor´s appointment and communicating with their children's teacher. The GAS results informed the design of the program. Participants studied the Finnish language through different themes through practical activities, information sessions and visits. Themes were tailored, according to social marketing approach, based on the needs and hopes of the participants. Themes included health and dental care, hobbies, social services, housing counselling, computer training, going to grocery store and cooking, learning how to recycle, excursions to city library and to language course of Savo Consortium of Education. Program of the pilot project was a diverse combination of information sessions and language learning activities.

Formal methods of evaluation involved a survey, focus groups interviews, feedback discussion and a reflective log completed by the language teacher and the professionals involved. The survey recorded any changes to women's self-reported health and well-being as the result of participation on the 6-week course. Focus group interviews provided a more descriptive feedback on group processes and strategies. The reflective thoughts and learning from those professionals who ran the program were captured though the use of monthly reflective log completed by the professionals, together with meetings with the research team.

Picture of the professionals of the language program. In front from left to right: Elina Asikainen, Social Worker, Integration Unit, City of Kuopio, Anniina Tourunen, Language Teacher, Multicultural Center Kompassi, Setlementt Puijola and Ilham Lhayati, Interpreter, Integration Unit, City of Kuopio. In the back, from left to right: Katja Kiflie Beka, Social Worker, Integration Unit, City of Kuopio and Johanna Rastas, Coordinator, Multicultural Center Kompassi, Settlement Puijola.

New Learning and Reflections

The first pilot has provided opportunities for new learning. The motivation of the refugee women to learn a language was high however, it was crucial that the course was tailored and supportive to the specific needs of this group. It is conceivable that participant's goals will change and prospective courses must be responsive and flexible. The language teacher and professionals involved believe that there is a large unmet need for similar type programs amongst refugee women who have been in Finland for a longer period than three years. Contrary to the assumptions of the original program participants reported that they would have preferred more language learning instead of diverse activities combining language learning with information sessions. Reflecting their intense desire to learn the language, participants expressed the need to involve the Arabic interpreter with them during sessions, so they could interact with the teacher i.e. express themselves and ask questions. Participants expressed their desire to continue language learning and hoped to get access a new course as soon as possible.

Language teachers and professionals involved in the program felt that they were effective in addressing some of the barriers women experience in engaging with language courses. The most significant challenge the professionals faced in delivering the course was limited time. Program activities were time consuming for many reasons e.g. some of the participants were illiterate and were not familiar with studying or had to feed their babies during the course activities. It was felt that a 30 hour program was insufficient to achieve measurable outcomes given the complex needs of group. However pilot, has been significant a trigger for exploring and developing alternative course programs. Over the next two pilots professional will have the opportunity to further develop and improve the program using an action learning approach to language teaching. The second group starts in autumn 2017. Already the new pilot sessions will be lengthened and themes reduced to make the course more effective to participants. The social marketing approach has had a constructive impact on the way language courses are being designed and delivered to the Middle Eastern refugee women. This study confirms that refugee women wish to learn language for very practical everyday activities and results mirror similar studies on other countries (Riggs et. al. 2012).


This study confirms that refugee women are best motivated to acquire a second language based on very practical everyday activities and needs (Riggs et. al. 2012) and not the agenda of government or service providers. The findings defy populist beliefs that refugee women are reluctant, lack motivation to attend programs, or not supported by their husbands to attend such courses. There is a demand for more customised and facilitated language courses for refugee women and other migrant groups who have difficulty accessing standard language courses. The growing commodification and politicalisation of language courses and programs has meant the unique needs of refugee mothers are overlooked, leaving women further isolated. Language acquisition is a matter of equality and human rights and without the opportunity to learning, refugee women's world may be confined to the four walls of their home. Watkins et. al. (2012) has argued that greater sensitivity to refugees' backgrounds, culture and gender is necessary in all education programs working toward a multicultural society. Programs must empower and motivate refugee communities, understand and sensitively negotiate cultural customs and take into account the effects of culture, gender and context on adult learning. We would suggest that professionals must review and question prevailing attitudes toward refugees and their established practices and assumptions in relation providing services to diverse migrant groups (Watkins et. al. 2012). Buhin (2012) emphasizes how it is important to keep in mind the demographic heterogeneity of refugees when creating culturally relevant social interventions to maximize the probability of success. It is our experience that social marketing approach appears to a responsive approach to delivering language services by taking into account cultural customs, barriers and needs and by tailoring each language services accordingly.


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