The speakers are playing J. Karjalainen’s heart-warming song about his son Väinö, which is familiar to all Finns. The ten students form pairs tasked with moving a straw between each other’s index fingers. Keeping the straw in place requires precise coordination.
We are at the Helsinki Finnish Adult Education Centre in Kallio with the Finnish-language group for immigrants. This language learning group is unique in that the adult students did not even know how to read or write in their native language upon moving to Finland.
The adult education centre provides them with literacy training for immigrants.
This afternoon, the lesson is supported and spiced up with some drama activities led by coordinating teacher Ida Backer.
Under her guidance, the group is inspired to improvise, make up invisible gifts and compete for seats, since the aim is to switch chairs whenever hearing mention of something you enjoy.
Motivation from work try-outs
After the improvisation session, the group members sit in a circle talking about their experiences of the adult education centre training.
Gratefulness is foremost in everyone’s mind. The teaching that began with the basics has progressed gradually and maintained a patient approach to learning difficulties.
Begard Rafiq says that she was not able to attend school in Iraq, her country of birth. School education for girls collapsed during Saddam Hussein’s reign.
"Arriving in Finland, I couldn’t even write my own name", she says.
Despite having lived a total of six years in different parts of Finland, she only started to grasp speaking, writing, and reading Finnish in Helsinki when she was able to join the training organised by the Helsinki Finnish Adult Education Centre.
Rafiq’s child, on the other hand, is fluent in the language of the family’s new home country. Her 24-year-old son is currently studying to become a security guard.
Rafiq showers praise on special needs teacher Paula Merikaisla, who has guided her in many ways. The entire group joins in and applauds.
The students are excited to talk about the things they have achieved since being able to access the training.
Laila Ansari and Siyam Hun have gained working life experience through the work activities of the Uusix sewing workshop. Sahra Hassan, too, hopes to get started at a workshop. Martha Eteke has been involved in the work activities of coaching house Luxi in Vantaa.
Mariama Bah is about to start a work try-out with a shop in the Malmi district that sells African foodstuffs, and Ibraham Mohammad works as a cleaner at Helsinki Airport.
The teacher maintains hope
The group’s teacher Paula Merikaisla used to work as a special needs teacher for primary school. She says that learning is very different among the adult education centre’s immigrant groups compared to children.
The illiterate adult immigrants can sometimes have broader learning difficulties, which can sometimes be substantial. They may also have gone through traumatic experiences in their past. Since the learning is slow, the teacher needs to keep the spirit up among the group and inspire the students.
Coordinating teacher Minka Hietanen emphasises the importance of inspiring and encouraging the learners. The students are motivated to learn; an illiterate person who does not know the language is entirely at the mercy of others and vulnerable.
Some of the adult students have children who interpret and explain things to them. Many immigrants who have moved to Finland have relatives or friends in the country.
That said, without language proficiency and the ability to read and write, life is full of difficulties.
Most of those who enter the adult education centre’s training are from the Middle East or Africa, but there have also been participants from countries such as China and Thailand and some from closer countries such as Bulgaria.
Many have not attended a day of school or have started school but found it too challenging due to their learning difficulties.
Studying without interpretation
According to Hietanen, no interpretation services are used in the teaching. Interpreters are only involved in the personal guidance discussions.
"It’s ultimately quite astonishing how few words we need to be able to communicate. Language is only one element of overall communication."
The teaching relies heavily on images and gestures. There are many good books for adult learners – one of them called ‘Aasta se alkaa’ even states in its Finnish name that learning begins with the letter A.
Usually, the learners begin to master basic level Finnish after about 18 months of studying. Integration in its entirety is a lengthy process for someone who is illiterate and arrives in the country without knowing the language. It may take five years to get started in working life, but for some the progress is faster.
The education also supports integration.
"The students learn how to conduct themselves in Finnish society. They may even have to learn that you need to be on time for lessons and that you can’t be on your phone during class. We also practise focusing", Hietanen says.
The education encourages the students to be active citizens. The groups go out for excursions to libraries, museums and to the Suomenlinna fortress island. Doing things together brings the students closer.
Suitable course through testing
Over the course of a year, the Helsinki Finnish Adult Education Centre organises 16 courses for illiterate adult immigrants. There are a total of three levels from basic to advanced.
"Initially, there is always some stress as to how well a new group can get going and acquainted with each other. With the course that starts with the basics, it is important for the teacher to proceed as clearly and slowly as possible, one thing at a time. We get to know each other gradually and build our shared vocabulary and methods."
The students come in through the Stadin osaamiskeskus at Helsinki Vocational College and Adult Institute, referred by employment or social welfare services. All participants first take a test to determine their suitable course level.
Immigrants have lots of potential for working life
The aim is to organise an enjoyable work try-out for every participant during Merikaisla’s special course.
Her students have significant learning difficulties that block the normal path to working life or vocational studies through integration training. Merikaisla finds that it is sensible to combine studies with a work try-out early on during the learning process.
The work usually involves performance level tasks. Hietanen uses the term ‘demand-specific work ability’, because even those who have a passable grasp of the language can be useful in a work community where tasks can be distributed easily based on specific skills and where support is available as necessary.
She hopes that employers will recognise the potential of immigrants who are already living in Finland: they do not need to be enticed to come, and they have had time to settle down.
The best part of the work for the teachers is to see the students’ progress. The praise is frequent and ample even outside the afternoon drama session.
"Sometimes I hear about the students’ lives after the course. Recently, I got a message that one of my former students is now working as a care assistant. One graduated as a practical nurse and another works at a daycare centre", says Hietanen happily.
Original text in Finnish: Kirsi Riipinen
Photos: Antti Nikkanen