Will learning the language of the country one inhabits lead to seamless integration?

Blog-entry by Tania Nathan

The effects of our globalising world has been that of gain, and loss. There is no denying the gains some have seen from our shrinking borders, but that too has not been without costs. With increased migration, comes the intermingling of cultures, and a certain amount of conflict. Some parties insist on assimilation while others root for integration – both are in itself problematic concepts. At the forefront of this discussion, is language. Will learning the language of the country one inhabits lead to seamless integration?

In my work with young migrants, asylum seekers and refugees I have seen a strong desire that drives them to learn the lingua franca of Finland. This motivation comes from a series of reasons – the need to fit in, to be understood, and to find a place in this new society that they now call home. Yet, there is a need to preserve the diversity of languages that make up their own mother tongues, especially as they learn a new language. Why is this?

We have seen the mistakes made in the past when minorities have had their mother tongues actively suppressed, along with their expressions of culture – be it through shared celebrations, religions, histories, and clothing. The death of cultural diversity is a loss for us all, and is something that must be struggled against actively. A homogenous world is a boring one, lacking in nuance and variety. We should encourage people to practice their cultures, so that they flourish and can have healthy participation in a society that accepts them as they are. How can this be done? In one simple and effective way, the mother tongues of minorities, indigenous groups and migrants must be protected and given room, especially as they work towards learning a new language and identity in the society they have chosen to call home. That way, a mutual respect can be fostered between both parties, and both parties stand to benefit.

In order for languages to stand the test of time, they must adapt to the changing times, and also changing situations. The struggle and adaptation of languages and cultures to new times, environments, and norms is what will allow it to endure. A diversity of cultures and languages will not result in the ‘watering down’ of any one culture in the society it inhabits, because no culture exists in a vacuum, and we are all prone to change and growth. This, is a good thing. Also, in order for ‘integration’ to work, it must provide opportunities for equality and participation.

Another endeavour to encourage more representation has been undertaken by Ruskeat Tytöt, a non-profit media organisation in Finland with its motto ‘For brown people, by brown people’. RT has created creative writing courses for 14-29 year old persons of color who are girls (and all other genders beyond the normative ‘male’) through workshops and courses. This way, the normative voices and ideas in the media can be diversified, and the experiences of all kinds of people can be normalized in a society where everyone can and should have an active participation. The young adults studying Finnish at Vantaa’s Institute of Adult Education for one, are motivated to learn because they want to participate in this society. They want to have an active role in study and work life and have the same opportunities as everyone else. Naturally, they sometimes find the nuances of the new language they are trying to learn difficult. It is useful to remind them then, that they have already successfully grasped the intricacies of their own mother tongue which they do speak fluently. This is crucial to remember, that those struggling to learn Finnish may already be experts in two or three other languages, some with complex writing systems completely different to the Latin alphabet and with thousands of years of history backing them up. To give that credit and respect, will help new learners realize that their own languages are valuable and important, and that knowledge can be used to help them learn this new language. That way, the cultural differences we so cherish in our world can be preserved and given room to grow.

The more visibility and room we make for migrants, persons of color, and the indigenous in Finland, the more we benefit, because only when we understand each other, and hear the stories and songs of those around us, can we recognize that there is more to unite us, than divide us. When it becomes normal for representation of people of color by people of color (as well as all other groups), and for all languages to have a place in our society, only then can we turn the idea of integration on its head and talk about a society that is really united.

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Tania Nathan is a writer, educator and poet who lives and works in the Uusimaa region.

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