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Language and Power: Interview with Tuuli From, PhD Candidate at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Education

Photo credit: Mia Smeds/JustEd

I am excited to introduce the first in a series of interviews that will be featured on Voices in Education focused on the Finnish education system. The goal of this series is to add more dimensions to the dominant narratives of the Finnish system by hearing perspectives from those who have directly experienced the system. The first interview with Tuuli From explores what the Finnish and Swedish school systems can teach us about the role of language policies in education.

From is currently a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education at the University of Helsinki. Through her doctoral research, she uses ethnographic methods to explore questions regarding the connections between language, power, and language policy in the context of Finnish and Swedish schools. She is interested in how national language policies in Finland (where Swedish is the second national language) and Sweden (where Finnish is one of Sweden’s national minority languages) define spaces of education. In particular, she examines how monolingual spaces contribute to the formation of fixed notions of national identity and perpetuate social hierarchies, even within national education systems that are often cited internationally as models of equality.

Her doctoral work is funded through JustED, a collaborative Nordic research group committed to exploring questions of justice in the Nordic educational contexts. You can find her research here.

What sparked your initial interest in researching these questions related to language and power?

Even before I started my Masters thesis in Education, I ended up working as a Research Assistant in a project at our faculty that had to do with co-located schools—where Finnish-speaking schools and Swedish-speaking schools function under the same roof, as mono-lingual units. Actually, when I entered that project, I wasn’t that focused on language questions. Before, I was more interested in feminist and cultural research and difference-making in education in general. Then I entered this project and became interested in questions concerning language and language policy in education in a different manner.

At the time, there was a societal debate going on in Finland about bilingual Finnish- and Swedish-speaking schools. That was interesting because it shook this hegemonic discourse about Swedish-speaking schools being monolingual institutions. There were several interesting aspects in that debate in terms of language policy and identity construction, and I decided to do my Masters thesis on it. My work as a Research Assistant and my Masters thesis sparked my interest to continue with the same topic in my PhD.

For those unfamiliar with Finnish language policy, can you provide some context on the history of Finland as a bilingual state?

We go back to the era when Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom—starting from the 14th Century. It all began with the crusades by the Swedish kingdom to the area of Finland, and then Finland actually stayed under the Swedish crown until 1809 and then became part of Russia instead.

During the Russian era, there was also the Fennoman movement, which emphasized the role of Finnish language in the construction of the Finnish nation state and was particularly strong in the late 19th century. Despite the emphasis of Finnish language and Finland being a part of Russia, the position of the Swedish language in Finland remained central all the way to Finnish independence in 1917. In 1922, the first language act defined Swedish and Finnish as the national languages of Finland.

What do you see as the role of schools–in Finland and/or in Sweden–in producing or reproducing broader social inequalities?

I see that all the societal power relations are present and reproduced in schools. Still today, to a great extent, schools are spaces for reproducing cultural representations as well as hegemonic discourses on nationality and citizenship.

In terms of language policies, it is interesting to conduct ethnographic research in physical school spaces to see those same processes on micro- and macro- levels being carried out and negotiated – and also being resisted. I consider schools, at least those in Finland and Sweden that I’ve studied, still to a great extent maintaining a monolingual norm in their practices, even while having a linguistically diverse school space. In the bilingual school, that showed in how Finnish and Swedish were more or less kept separate in instruction or organized in certain spatial hierarchies for different purposes. So that reflects the construction of nationality as connected to the legitimate languages of the nation state.

Are there any unique ways that you think school reproduce that inequalities that are distinct to how they are (re)produced in other social spaces, or do you think schools act as a sort of mirror to the rest of society?

It might be too much to say schools are a mirror, but certainly the tendencies from the rest of society enter education at some point despite the pursuit of equality that the Nordic educational systems still to some extent have.

The identity of Nordic educational systems has been traditionally constructed on values such as democracy and social justice. Research on educational policy and practice has for some time been able to show that a certain market logic has also entered the spaces of education, particularly in Sweden but also in Finland. The marketization of education has implications also in terms of the realization of language rights in education, such as offering minority education in independent schools or selecting pupils to specialized language classes.

Are there any particular examples of this marketization of education in Sweden that you can point to—either in terms of language policy, or more generally?

A particular example in the context of my research is the position of Finnish in the educational system of Sweden. Finnish is one of Sweden’s five national minority languages and the children with a Finnish background have a legislative right to use and develop their language and cultural identity in education. However, in order to access Finnish-speaking education, other than the mother tongue instruction provided in public schools, one has to choose a bilingual Sweden-Finnish independent school.

Independent schools [like charter schools in the US] are not private schools but are run by public money and private organizations. They cannot charge any fees from the students, but they still have their own governance, even though they have the same national curriculum than public schools. In the independent school, the emphasis was often on the potential value of Finnish as a commodity, which had to be used as an asset for marketing the school. Many of these bilingual Sweden-Finnish schools have been ran down during the past years and there are only a few left in the whole country. Thus, it is also a question related to spatial and geographical inequality.

Are there any similarities between the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland and the Finnish-speaking minority in Sweden, in terms of the ways that their identities are constructed in schools through language policy? If not, what are the most critical differences between the experiences of these groups in schools?

In these two cases, you can on one hand see the intertwined histories of the countries and the languages and on the other hand different societal and language political environments of the present times. Thus, a systematic comparison would not be meaningful but we may reflect on some of the issues through a socio-historical and a language political lens.

In the Finnish case, you can see a certain societal privilege related with the Swedish language, in terms of history and the status as the other national language of Finland. The legislation that provides the Swedish-speaking school the monolingual space within the public school system also provides a space for collective identity construction that is based on language as a right and the cultural value of Swedish as a part of the Finnish nation. Even if the debates during the past years have also introduced new ideas and possibilities for combining Finnish and Swedish in education, an understanding of the Swedish-speaking school spaces being necessary remains.

And then in the Swedish context, we can see the historical traces of Finnish being considered a migrant language, despite nowadays having an official status in Sweden’s language policies and therefore also in education. Even though there have been Finnish-speaking populations in Sweden for hundreds and hundreds of years, the collective identity construction of the Finnish-speaking population still reflects the era of post-war migration. Even if the status and reputation of Finnish in Sweden has changed a lot during the past generations, you can still see an awareness of social class in the way that the Finnish language is positioned in Swedish society and in the educational system.

In the bilingual Swedish-Finnish school in Sweden, I was able to capture discourses and practices questioning the value of Finnish language. Finnish was not self-evidently among the pupils considered as necessary in the Swedish society or the educational system but more often as a personal benefit related to private life. The teachers’ views often reflected a disappointment in the short-comings of Swedish education policy in terms of language rights, such as the problematic position of Finnish language in the market-oriented educational system.

Do you have any specific alternatives (at a policy-level, or any other level) that you feel would be effective at dealing with some of the issues posed by current language policies?

Nancy Hornberger talks about the possibilities to create ideological and implementational spaces in education through language policies. Through multilingual policies, we can promote possibilities for educators and other language policy agents in education to create and develop those spaces that enable schools to recognize the linguistic diversity and the value of language.

In general, there is a need to promote linguistic awareness—awareness of different language policy processes and power relations having effects on school space. We need to promote policies that enable educators to recognize those power relations that are present in the school spaces and in educational spaces in general. Some of the issues, however, are rooted deeper in the inequalities of society and marketization of education. Phenomena such as the commodification of language in education are only a part of the symptom.

So would you say that changing these policies is a necessary step to allow teachers to create these sorts of classroom spaces?

At least that helps. The educational and language policies as constraining or enabling certain classroom practices was actually something that came up pretty often when I talked with the teachers in Finland and particularly in Sweden. The legislation and the policy in Finland provides a safe space for Swedish language but then again, not that many possibilities for multilingual practices. The Finnish-speaking teachers in Sweden, in contrast, constantly expressed the lack of structure in the educational system. They really longed for some structure through language or education policy to provide continuity for Finnish language in Sweden.

And that also goes back to education policies in general—not only language policies. What kinds of school systems do we have and how do they promote language rights? Do we have a public school system that isn’t based on the commodification of language, for example? Or, do we have an independent school system like in Sweden, where language easily becomes a commodity and the teachers have to keep on justifying the value of learning Finnish as beneficial in economic terms.

Has your research complicated or challenged any beliefs you previously held about the dynamics of your own educational experience in primary and/or secondary school?

My own primary school time was in really monolingual Finnish area, so you wouldn’t have to think about language-related issues that much. Once I was in lower secondary school (grades 7-9), the students represented a great number of first languages. I don’t remember that those languages would have been promoted in any way in the school space though—visually, or in the school culture or instruction.

I remember questioning the spatial separation that was based on language; most of the pupils with migrant backgrounds or other first languages than Finnish were placed in certain classes, with only some of them receiving preparatory education. And that is what I mean by challenging the monolingual policy—bringing awareness to the teachers via teacher education to be able to lift up those languages other than the official language of the school as valuable resources and all kinds of linguistic identities to be included in spaces of education. I don’t remember having that experience from my own school time.

This research has changed my thoughts about languages and language-related categorizations in general. I don’t see languages as fixed systems anymore, which has also influenced my own language-use to a more flexible direction. Doing ethnographic research on language and language policy has raised awareness of linguistic identities as something more complicated.

How might your research on the Finnish and Swedish educational contexts inform the ways that other nations approach the role of language, at a policy-level and/or a classroom-level?

If we return to what I said about the construction of nationality as connected to official national language(s), I hope that this research will provide new perspectives to reconsidering this particular ethnolinguistic construction in education—to seeing the diversity, and to seeing identity as not tied to one language – the legitimate language of the school or the nation.

This monolingual ideal still seems to be an underlying linguistic ideology in a monolingual school, and paradoxically also in a bilingual school, through practices related to linguistic management and purity. In my research I have been first and foremost interested in the recognition of linguistic resources and, on the other hand, in linguistic governance, i.e. the discourses and practices through which languages are managed and placed in hierarchies, even in a multilingual school space.

My study is not particularly about language instruction, but it might still provide perspectives in recognizing the traces of this old linguistic paradigm that it is undesirable to mix languages in instruction and in education in general — this idea of linguistic purity still seems to remain strong particularly in the classroom context but also in the informal spaces of the school.

Thus, I hope that this research would also provide ways to question and recognize the governance that partly relies on power relations established in the nation state, linguistic hierarchies and the notion of languages as separate entities.

Photo Credit: Mia Smeds/JustEd

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