Beyond the Textbook:
Cultural Insights in a Swedish Language
Integration Teaching Setting in Finland
Susan Jane Granberg
Master in Education:
Teaching Multilingual Learners Focus
To my husband, children, and parents for their love, patience, support, and understanding.
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Language is an essential pillar of culture; it is that which conveys core beliefs as well as the way of life, and it shapes the nuances in society (Deneme et al., 2011). And it is a language which is indeed the most advanced cultural element (Brooks, 1964). The importance of culture and language has inspired many scholars around the world (Abushihab, 2016, Asay et al., 2019, Belli, 2018, Byram, 2015, Snider, 2018) to study the importance of including culture in the curriculum of the language learning classroom, as well as the importance of understanding the students’ culture in the language acquisition process.
The title of this paper is “Beyond the Textbook,” which is intended to capture the idea that transmitting language theory from a textbook is a limited approach to language acquisition. The premise is that there are other elements that are equally important, if not more so, to equip the student to survive in the language environment he or she is supposedly being equipped for. Many such elements fall under the broad title of “culture.” Indeed, language and culture are inextricably intertwined (Abushihab, 2016), the one cannot be taught without the other.
However, there have not been quite as many that specifically deal with Finland. The literature covered in the next section highlights the theme of language, and the learning thereof, being intertwined with culture in a variety of cultural settings, and there are even a couple of research articles that cover aspects of this in the Finnish setting. These focus on international students’ experiences in higher education and compulsory education of immigrant children in Finnish-medium schools.
Finland is a rich and complex culture with two official languages: Finnish and Swedish. Thus, there is room for a study that focuses on instruction in Swedish for the purpose of integration into Finland.
Research Objectives and Questions
This capstone project will be to principally focus on the interplay between language acquisition and culture in a Swedish Integration Classroom in Finland. The research will follow specific Swedish-language teachers. More specifically, the Swedish speaking teacher in the Ostrobothnia region in Finland. This region has not only Finnish speakers but also Swedish speaking Finnish citizens whose first language is Swedish. The study is conducted with in-depth interviews with Swedish speaking teachers who teach students in the integration program. Through these interviews, more information will be collected and analyzed on how teachers include their rich local culture into the curriculum. The interviews will be based on the following four research questions. The full list of interview questions can be found in the appendix.
— What are the teacher’s views on how the students’ home culture influences their language study?
— How can teachers use cultural sensitivity to bridge the culture gap?
— What insights do Swedish Integration Language Teachers have on how the education system can improve upon the inclusion of culture into the classroom?
— Do teachers need any specific training to help meet the significant needs of immigrant or multicultural students?
Background and Setting
Finland is a unique country, situated on the Arctic Circle between Sweden and Russia. Finland is also interesting in that it has two official languages “Finnish and Swedish. Finnish is the primary language spoken in Finland by 87.3% of the population, and Swedish is a minority language spoken by 5% (Statistics Finland, n.d.).” A brief history of Finland helps one understand why Swedish is also used in Finland. From 1323–1809, Finland was considered the easternmost part of Sweden and was under Swedish rule. In 1809–1917, Finland was a part of the Russian Empire. It was not until 1917 that Finland declared independence from Russia and established its own country and started to build itself up as an individual country. In 1991 onwards, it became part of the European Union (Finnish History, 2019).
Finnish is linguistically in a league of its own, with famously few other branches on its language tree. In line with the previously mentioned strong connection between language and culture, Finns are similarly culturally unique, and somewhat isolated. In the interview material for this study (P. 1 et al., personal communication, 2020), respondents described their countrymen as being egalitarian, independent, quiet, law-abiding, and welfare state-trusting, quiet, private and punctual. Swedish-speaking Finns have these same tendencies, blended with some more broadly European characteristics owing to their Swedish background. As one might expect, local varieties of Swedish are linguistically distinct from the Swedish spoken in Sweden. The difference is subtler in standard Swedish, but more pronounced in colloquialisms and dialects, with a noticeable influence from Finnish in many cases.
Thus Finland presents an interesting research prospect in examining how this rather unique blend of language and culture manifests itself in the context of language acquisition, especially in interaction with other languages and cultures. An important example of where this can be observed is when immigrants are added to the equation.
Immigration to Finland
According to the research done by Sinkkonen & Kyttälä (2014), only in the last 25 years has Finland become a more multicultural society. Over these 25 years, there has been an increase in immigration to Finland, which in turn has caused an increase in multiculturalism in the classroom. The data collected by Statistics Finland (2019) shows a marked increase in foreign-language speakers in Finland. In 1990, the statistics showed that there were around 24,783 foreign-language speakers in the whole of Finland, whereas, in 2019 there were an estimated 412,644 foreign language speakers. That translates to an increase of 1565.02% in the last 29 years. With the data collected by Sinkkonen & Kyttälä (2014) and Statistics Finland (2019), one can see the increasing need for teachers to be prepared to teach multilingual and multicultural learners. In 1990 they accounted for only 1% of the population. In 2016 it had increased to 6.8% of the population. It is worth noting that even though the percentage is small compared to other countries, the growth has been the fastest, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Migration in Finland and the Context of Integration Policy, 2018).
It is because of the increase that there is now a substantial number of multicultural students in the Finland classroom. The OECD (2018) has noted that Finland has limited experience with integration and the development of an integration system. They also note that responsible authorities had inadequate experience relating to the integration process prior to the 1990s. This was the case for some time, with immigration policy in Finland remaining mostly undeveloped until later into the decade. The public employment services did not identify the individual needs of immigrants. In addition, the employment services treated their needs very much the same to those who were native-born. This suggests that there is room for a study dedicated to this until recently misunderstood group, especially as Finland is welcoming ever-increasing numbers of immigrants. The natural and important setting, for the study of this group and their language acquisition journey, is in the Finnish government’s integration program.
To help immigrants thrive in Finland, the Finnish government offers different ways to help these new arrivals to integrate. According to the Ministry of Employment and the Economy (2020), the goal of integration training is to give the immigrant a better chance of becoming part of Finnish society. Further, in the integration training, among other things, one learns Finnish or Swedish and other communicative skills. The study that was done by Sinkkonen & Kyttälä (2014) also looks into the integration training and the areas in which it can be improved. The integration process also assists the immigrant student in passing the National Certificate of Language Proficiency (National Certificate of Language Proficiency (YKI), n.d.). This proficiency test can be taken in Swedish or Finnish. To apply for citizenship, the immigrant student must pass a combination of the following three:
— Speaking 3 or 4 with Writing 3 or 4
— Listening comprehension 3 or 4 with Writing 3 or 4
— Reading comprehension 3 or 4 with speaking 3 or 4
Culture and Language Learning
Language learning is an involved process. Language is laden with cultural elements that are essential to its very being (Pennycook, 1989; Phillipson, 1992; Alptekin, 2002). Culture is considered a component of language, and linguistic production and practice is a form of cultural practice and is perpetually rooted in the culture (Risager, 2006).
Bennett (1993) goes so far as to coin the expression “fluent fool”. He states that if one were only to speak the language well and not understand the social or philosophical elements of the language, it would be challenging to communicate with the native speakers of the language because of the absence of cultural understanding. Therefore, for a teacher to help students reach the full mastery of language learning, they must teach not only the language skills, patterns, but also rules involved in the language incorporate the cultural elements (Hesar et al., 2012).
Language acquisition is not a stand-alone act where one can learn the grammar and vocabulary and communicate effectively. According to a recent study by Guryanov et al. (2019), language learning goals must be met through the process of deepening the student’s capacity for intercultural communication. They argue that foreign language teachers should be required to use and improve upon their intercultural competence towards their students. The increase of intercultural or cultural teaching in the classroom can help students understand the language better and be more motivated to develop their language skills further. Atasever Belli (2018) states that in order to master another language and fully understand its complexities, one must also understand the cultural elements of the language, as well as identify similarities and differences between the host culture and one’s own.
The Finnish Setting with Regard to Culture and Language Learning
In regard to how this might apply to a Finnish classroom, the study by Sinkkonen & Kyttälä (2014), which interviewed nine teachers who teach multicultural students, argues that the existence of cultural and lingual diversity can become problematic and creates challenges for the teachers. There is a necessity for teachers to adequately know how to encounter and work with a culturally diverse student population. The lack of adequate teacher education in this area can make it challenging to incorporate culture and cultural sensitivity to the lessons.
Thus far in our review, we have seen many arguments to the effect that one must incorporate culture into the study of a language in order to attain an adequate understanding of it. Against the background of Finland’s government program to integrate multicultural students, it becomes interesting to look into how culture is incorporated in the Finnish classroom.
Examining the increase of foreign language speakers in Finland, one may reasonably conclude that there has been an increase in multicultural students in the classroom. Furthermore, one could also argue that the importance of teachers’ teaching culture and understanding the students’ cultures is increasing as well. In research done by Björklund et al. (2003), there has been a noticeable increase in teaching the native tongue (Finnish and Swedish) to all kinds of immigrant students (including in the regular school system) in Finland. Figures are available for this from as early as 1987 in Finland’s case, which is relatively late compared to, for example, its nordic peer Denmark, showing corresponding figures going back to 1976.
Sinkkonen & Kyttälä (2014) conducted nine interviews of Finnish teachers who have experience working with immigrant students. The first interviews were of teachers who were considered pioneers in Southern Finland with regards to teaching students of international background. Sinkkonen & Kyttälä (2014) also researched the topic of Experiences of Finnish Teachers Working with Immigrant Students. Sinkkonen & Kyttälä (2014) notes that the education programs in Finland are not yet sufficiently equipped to deal with the issues that arise with the increase of multicultural students in the integration classroom. They state that though the system is not sufficiently equipped, there is an increasing awareness among teachers and administrators that there is a need for deeper understanding and attentiveness to the needs of the multicultural students.
With regards to multicultural or multilingual student integration in Finland, there is a recent study by Li (2019) which discusses this very topic. The data collected was a qualitative semi-structured thematic interview. This method was used to ensure that the participants would be able to express themselves freely while the direction and forms of the interview were intact, and the data would be relevant to the study. The participants were thirty mainland Chinese students with a tertiary-level degree. The background of the students was verified of gender, age, and the major of study. However, these variables did not prove to play a significant role in the study. The constant theme from the interviews was how the influences of the student’s culture affected their learning in the classroom. In all the interviews, there was a specific theme that arose. She noted that there was not much research done on student integration in the Nordic countries and researched international Chinese students in the Finnish and German classrooms. Li (2019) states that in order for students to integrate into the new culture’s language fully, both the students and the academic staff must understand how their own culture affects and contributes to their learning/teaching and behavior. This study helped show the importance of culture when it concerns students integrating into the classroom.
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