Deka Abdillahi (front), 32, spent the first ten years in Finland as a housewife before beginning her Finnish studies in January.“I have an armchair in the living room,” Modou Jassey, a 35-year-old man from Gambia, duly describes his home. His Finnish teacher, Stina Nybäck, continues the questioning: Is it soft? Jassey nods in approval; he also has a bookshelf, a carpet and a painting on the wall.

Jassey began studying Finnish in January after waiting four months for admission to the integration programme.

A four-month wait is by no means unheard of. Several immigrants in the capital region have to wait notably longer for admission to the state-funded programme, some for over a year. At present, average waiting times are a minimum of six months.

On an average, immigrants in Espoo have to wait nearly seven months and immigrants in Vantaa six-and-a-half months for admission to the programme. In addition, they may have had to wait a couple of years at a reception centre or work without sufficient language skills before beginning the studies.

The situation has exacerbated notably over the past two years, says Teemu Haapalehto, the head of immigration affairs at the City of Espoo. “Waiting times in Espoo, for example, have increased by one month over the past year,” he highlights.

Linguistic proficiency is the single most important precondition for the successful integration of immigrants to the Finnish society, Haapalehto reminds. “The ability to work and earn a living is a key aspect of becoming a genuine member of the society,” he explains.

Excessive waiting times are beneficial neither for immigrants, nor Finland.

Haapalehto believes it is mindless to shut people who are genuinely interested in finding employment out of the labour market.

Insufficient language skills are identified as the greatest obstacle to finding employment by both employers and employees. In addition, they can prove an obstacle in daily life.

“I remember going to a Finnish grocery shop for the first time,” says Ali Rasuolzadhe, a 24-year-old man who arrived in Finland from Iran as a refugee five years ago. “I asked my sister to come along, but she said no. She thought I should learn on my own.”

His sister did, however, offer some advice. She told Rasuolzadhe that he did not have to speak at the grocery shop and that he would only be asked if he had a loyalty card. “She told me what it says on a package of ground beef, and it went well,” he tells.

Nybäck starts the language course by going through the fundamentals: In Finland, shoes are typically left at the entrance, how to weigh vegetables at a grocery shop, the platform projecting from the wall of a building is called parveke.

As her students rarely have a common language, she has to rely largely on gestures and visual aids.

Haapalehto believes waiting times for language courses are long simply because too few are organised. According to him, companies and education institutions would be prepared to offer more language courses, if the state was prepared to invest accordingly.

“There isn't enough energy in the machinery,” he laments.

The situation is disconcerting also in light of projections of population growth. Today, 13 per cent of the residents of Helsinki speak neither Finnish nor Swedish as their mother tongue.

Even the more conservative projections suggest that the share of foreign-language speakers will continue to grow at a breakneck pace in the years to come. Helsinki Urban Facts has forecast that 25 per cent of working-age people in the capital region will be foreign-language speakers by 2030.

Rasuolzadhe had to wait one year for admission to the integration programme despite having already lived in Finland for a couple of years. Two months after the start of the language course, he already speaks Finnish effortlessly.

“First you learn one [variant of] Finnish, then you get out of school and people speak a different [variant] of Finnish, minun becomes mun,” Jassey says.

While it is correct to say bussi viisikymmentäkahdeksan (bus 58), no one speaks like that outside the classroom. “They have to learn the numbers and once they've learnt them, they have to learn the numbers again,” confirms Nybäck.

“You hop on the viiskasi or take the kakskolmonen,” Jassey and Deka Abdillahi, 32, elaborate, shaking their heads.

Their studies have nevertheless progressed smoothly. The students are able to discuss a wide variety of topics as long as you remember to speak slowly. “Finns speak fast, too fast,” sighs Rasuolzadhe.

Kaisu Moilanen – HS
Aleksi Teivainen – HT
Photo: Juhani Niiranen / HS