Originally from Kuusamo, Tuomo Polo relocated to study journalism in OAMK and then went to the University of Oulu to study the Finnish language. He pursued an MA degree in the Finnish language, including pedagogy and literature. His specialisation was in Finnish as a second/foreign language. Currently, Tuomo is working in the Comprehensive school for adults immigrants at Oulun Aikuislukio (Oulu Upper Secondary School for Adults). Some of his students have never been to school. Finnish is the primary language in which they study, compose, and read even if they can't pursue it in their native language.
We talked about the purpose of his profession, particularly teaching immigrants, and the experience he acquired while teaching multicultural individuals. He likewise clarifies the uniqueness of the Finnish language and the purported challenges in learning the Finnish language.
Tuomo Polo has always been interested in writing, reading, and speaking in his mother tongue, Finnish. He knew that his career would be connected to the Finnish language in any form. During his work as a journalist, he understood the power of words. In Tuomo’s opinion, language is shaping society.
“Language rules the whole world. Language makes everything visible.”
Tuomo has been teaching the Finnish language as a second language since 2014. During these years, he tried all possible levels. He used to work in kotoutumiskoulutus (integration training and social studies) in OAKK. Then he worked in high school for adults. Despite that, he worked at the university level in France and taught the Finnish language in the Czech Republic. Furthermore, he was teaching summer courses for university students. In choosing to pick either to teach grown-ups or kids, he says that teaching is quite similar in the amount of effort he gives. Thinking in an instructive manner is diverse. When teaching kids, he needs to keep them engaged, and he cannot focus only on the subject.
“There are 80 universities in almost 30 countries where you can study the Finnish language.”
Tuomo has never thought of becoming a teacher. It was his backup plan. While working as a journalist, he saw a mass firing of employees in that field. And Tuomo understood that, unlike journalists, teachers will always be in demand, and he will have many possibilities to work in his native language.
When Tuomo studied at the University of Oulu, a new subject called “Finnish as a second or foreign language” was introduced. It was something new that he had never heard about.
At that time, immigration was rapidly growing in Finland, and there could be a demand for mastery in this field. Tuomo’s passion for travelling and different cultures made him choose this subject as a minor. After graduation, when he and his wife worked in Helsinki but planned to move back to Oulu, he received a call from his friend. There was a need for teachers who could teach Finnish as a second language for foreigners. He immediately got that job.
Here comes the question that haunts every foreigner learning Finnish: "What makes the Finnish language so difficult and unique?".
Tuomo responds that Finnish is a synthetic language with many grammatical cases. To be more precise, he clarifies that there are not so many prepositions and prefixes if you compare it to English. English words don't conjugate from the body, and in Finnish, almost everything happens at the end of a word. Furthermore, he says that even though Finns don’t understand the Hungarian language, the structure of the language is quite similar.
“Finnish is not difficult, it’s just different. You have to approach the language from a different angle.”
Tuomo says that Finnish people are pretty proud of their language. People want to use it. However, working in the international environment is a very “thankful” and fulfilling experience for Tuomo. He loves to work with people from all over the world and extend his understanding of different cultures and people. After meeting so many great individuals from different countries, his life became richer. Everything unfamiliar or unknown can scare people. Therefore, he encourages everyone to know more about each other and learn from each other.
“Every now and then, I remember that guy who left Kuusamo many years ago [talking about himself]. There were not so many foreigners during that time, maybe just some tourists. After years of my international experience, after living in France and Prague, the world became bigger. Part of my heart stayed in Prague. I am not the same person anymore. So little did I know about the world when living in Kuusamo...
People might look different, but we are all the same in the end. Everyone is looking for happiness. There is not much difference between teaching in the multicultural and monocultural environment. There are just different personalities in the classroom.”
However, there is a difference when working with immigrants who didn’t receive any education in their homeland. Tuomo needs to teach them “how to study”. He needs to explain how to be in school and how to learn the language. People who have not concentrated on instructors do not centre around punctuation to such an extent that they will attempt to get only the basic words and sentences that they need in their daily life. Tuomo adds that people use paper and pen everywhere in Finland. Finland lives in the text culture, which makes a big difference compared to the countries where people don’t need written language so much. “It’s just a totally different world”, he says.
When talking about Finnish employment policy, Tuomo claims that there is a lack of understanding of the reality of the labour market needs. On one side, there is a significant demand for an educated labour force. But at the same time, the requirements for language are excessively high. As a result, getting a job for many newcomers becomes impossible. The ignorance of reality became a big obstacle for the integration and employment of immigrants in Finland.
“Many employers will expect you to perfectly speak or write in the Finnish language, even at the places where it’s not necessary. However, there is no such thing as “perfect language”. Even native speakers cannot write without mistakes.”
Tuomo highlights that it’s necessary to lower the bar of “fluency in Finnish”. However, it’s always up to individual employers to improve the situation. People will learn the language while working much more efficiently, especially regarding some professional terminology.
Furthermore, he addresses one issue to the locals. Quite often, Finnish people are trying to be polite, and when they hear foreigners trying to speak Finnish, they answer in English. Tuomo claims that it’s not good for language development and integration; it’s a mistake.
After all, Tuomo Polo gives the advice to all foreigners struggling with the Finnish language:
“Please, remember that there is no such thing as “perfect language”. Please, be brave and use all the knowledge that you already have. You will be understood! That's enough in most cases. One word takes you forward. Remember to use the language everywhere you go, even though some people will answer you in English. If you already know some Finnish, you have a superpower!”
Interviewer: Arina Lykova.
Interviewee: Tuomo Polo.
Editors: Arina Lykova, Javid Sameer.
Photographer: Arina Lykova.