Elore 2/1998, 5. vuosikerta
Julkaisija: Suomen Kansantietouden Tutkijain Seura ry., Joensuu
ISSN 1456-3010, URL: http://cc.joensuu.fi/~loristi/2_98/ogu298.html
E-mail: loristi@cc.joensuu.fi

Finnish Language as an Agent of Integration for Immigrant Women

Olukemi Oguntuyi

People and with them their cultures migrate for several reasons, e.g. as migrant workers or because of political and social unrest in their countries. Some individuals, especially women and children, migrate with family members. When cultures meet as a result of migration, individuals go through a process called acculturation. Finland has been an emigrating country till recently. Though immigration to Finland is not a new phenomenon, the immigration of Africans and African women in particular, is relatively new to Finnish society.

The process of acculturating into a new society is determined by several factors. Some of these have their origin in the background of the immigrant. Such factors are for example the expectations of the immigrant to the host society, or, the educational status of the migrant, etc. There are also factors affecting the processes which are grounded in the host society. These include for example, the attitudes of members of the host society (in this instance the Finns) towards immigrants as individuals and as a collective and the immigration policy of the host country or country of settlement. Because gender also affects the way immigrants relate to a new society, and vice versa, my research is about immigrant women from their perspective.

I am studying the position of women of African origin in Finnish society. The cultures in contact are the cultures these women come from and the ones they encounter in Finland. The women in this study are West Africans from Nigeria and Ghana. Their social backgrounds are similar because they are from southern Nigeria and Ghana. A large population of southern Nigerians and Ghanaians are Christians. All the respondents have Christian backgrounds. Many of the women are from coastal regions, or have lived some of their adult lives in coastal towns. In both countries, coastal people are often perceived as "civilised". In the 19th century and at the turn of this century, they were the ones who most often had contacts with the Europeans who went to African lands. Presently, people from coastal regions still have more contact with the West and the rest of the world. The economic and political capitals are usually situated in coastal cities. This means that important infrastructures which enhance communication, movement and meeting of cultures, are situated in these cities. With this background, it can be assumed that it will be easy for the women to integrate in Finland for two reasons: (a) they have earlier interaction with, and present knowledge of Western cultures and, (b) they have evidently lived in multilingual, multiethnic and multicultural societies.

Were there not some other factors encountered on immigration, the background these women have would have helped integration more than it has. Finland does not have the same traditions as the other Western cultures which the women have had contact and are familiar with. The European countries which these women are familiar with have longer traditions and relations with African countries. Because of the colonial relationships, immigrant communities are found in these countries.

In Finland, immigrant populations are thin and widespread (with the exception of Helsinki to some extent). This has been a disappointment for immigrants who expected to be welcomed by a community. Immigrants assume that the Finnish language is difficult to learn. The present situation is such that not all immigrants have free access to Finnish language education. For those who have access to language education, the quality of education received depends on the institution offering it.

In my thesis, the factors affecting the acculturation process of immigrant women are examined. In this paper, more emphasis is placed on the importance of knowing the host society's language when the immigrant attempts to acculturate into the society.


Acculturation theory forms the theoretical framework for this study. There are many definitions, structures and terms used by researchers working with this theory. In this study, I am using J.W. Berry's theory.

Immigration is a major cause for culture contact and therefore a factor necessitating acculturation. It is assumed that immigrants enter the process of acculturation voluntarily, while refugees and indigenous peoples enter the process involuntarily because it is forced on them. Among immigrant groups, the process is temporary for some, while it is more permanent for others. Though there are variations in the factors leading to acculturation, the processes of adaptation seem to be common to all groups.

The question of how to acculturate has to be dealt with by individual immigrants and immigrant groups as a collective in both the dominant and non dominant situations. These situations are the public spheres where they are relating to members of the Finnish society and the private sphere where they are relating mainly to the members of their culture. In their daily encounters with each other, strategies concerning two major issues are usually worked out by groups and individuals. First of these strategies is cultural maintenance - to which extent are cultural identity and characteristics considered being important, and their maintenance striven for. The second strategy is, contact and participation - to what extent should the immigrants become involved with other cultural groups, or remain primarily among themselves.

Berry (1995) writes that when culture maintenance and contact and participation are considered simultaneously a framework is generated which posits for four acculturation strategies. These strategies carry different names depending on which group - the dominant or non dominant - is under consideration.

In non dominant groups the assimilation strategy is used when individuals do not wish to maintain their cultural identity and seek daily interaction with other cultures. Contrast to this is the separation option when individuals place a value on their original culture and at the same time wish to avoid interaction with others. Those who opt for integration have interests in both maintaining their own original culture, and interacting daily with other groups. Marginalisation occurs when there is little possibility or interest in cultural maintenance. This is often because of enforced cultural loss and little interest in having relations with others (usually for reasons of exclusion or discrimination).

Individuals are supposed to choose the acculturation strategy which they use to adapt into their host society, but this is not always the case. Often the dominant group or host society enforce certain forms of acculturation or constraints on the choice of the non dominant group or individual. Of the four acculturation strategies, integration is considered the fairest option.

According to Berry, non dominant groups can freely choose and successfully pursue integration, when the dominant society is open and inclusive in their orientation towards cultural diversity. A mutual accommodation is thus required for integration to be attained. This involves the acceptance by both groups to live as culturally different peoples. This strategy requires non dominant groups to accept the basic values of the larger society, while at the same time the dominant group must be prepared to adapt national institutions (e.g. education, labour, health, etc.) to better the needs of all groups now living together in the plural society.

Berries' theory does not examine language as an acculturating factor, i.e. the influence of language as a means of communication between members of the host society and the minority groups living in the society. The ability to communicate with members of one's host society, to seek and collect information needed to understand the society, information needed to operate in the society and general information about the immediate society are, in my view, crucial for the acculturation process.

Berry's theory states that members of the non dominant group need to accept the basic values of the larger society. To accept the values of the larger society, the members of the non dominant groups have to go through a process to get to the point where they accept the said values. They have to know and understand the values, after which they accept them. The process cannot begin if knowledge is denied because the individuals in the non dominant group do not have the language competence needed.

In my study, seven women were interviewed. Of these, only one woman has enough knowledge of the Finnish language and society to go through the process of accepting the basic values of the society. This also indicates that she is the only one who could fully collect information needed to operate in the society. The other women have varying levels of competence of the Finnish language, which in turn affects the quality of information they have to work with in their acculturation process. The relations these women have with individual Finns they come into contact with and the Finnish society as a whole are also determined by the ability to communicate.

To participate in the social network of any given society, the participants have to have some knowledge of the culture, know the rules and norms of the culture of the society, as well as the values. To acquire the necessary knowledge, it is important to have a proper knowledge of the language spoken in the society in question. Because the knowledge of the respondents in the study on the average is minimal, they could not get into the Finnish social networks. Rather, the networks which they have are limited to Finns and other immigrants with whom they have a language in common.


In the attempt to locate the position of immigrant women in Finnish society, seven African women from Ghana and Nigeria were interviewed. The interviews were semi structured with open-ended questions. This method is used to gain proper insight into the lives of the respondents and the factors influencing their integration. Among the themes studied in my thesis are the factors which encourage or affect positive integration such as the ability to get into the labour market, to network into the society through the availability of support persons who assist the immigrant, knowledge of Finnish language and culture, awareness of their social and civil rights, and the possibility to maintain their cultural practises without interference. When questions relating to these themes were asked, new areas developed due to the nature of interview technique. The responses were analysed using Strauss and Corbin's methods of analysis.


The areas analysed and discussed in this study are based on themes responded to by the women interviewed. These themes are used to determine how the women are acculturating in order to establish their positions in the Finnish society. The themes are: the relationships among immigrant women; their relations with Finnish women; and interaction with the society. Within the next section, the interaction of immigrant women with the larger society through labour market participation and institutions of learning are examined. Other areas of interaction such as churches, organised parties etc. are also discussed.

The women in this study are non refugees, students and wives of men who are of foreign or Finnish origins. Because of this, the assistance to integrate which has been directed towards them has been minimal. When possible, most respondents relate to and befriend nearby women from their own countries. Usually there are not many women from the same country living near enough to have physical contact with. Their relationship with others from Africa living near or far is often underlined with the need for cultural support. For example, the women who have children communicate with others about how to culturally raise their children. According to them, it is not a very easy task, given the influence of the main culture which is easier for the children to adopt.

In order to enter into the Finnish society and its network, the assistance of Finnish women is needed. The ability to befriend a Finnish woman presupposes that there are forums where interaction is possible, and that there is a medium of communication. Both parties need to be open-minded and willing to learn about each other.

The respondents relate to, and have Finnish women as friends. Most of the women are of the opinion that their relationships with the Finnish women are not equal. According to them, Finnish women do not understand their positions as African women and urge them to liberate themselves. For some of the respondents the question of equality and its meaning has caused stains on the relationships with Finns who are their friends. Based on the data collected, there seems to be a misunderstanding on the part of most respondents about the position of Finnish women in Finnish society. Some respondents who have observed Finnish women at the work place assume that Finnish women get the best of everything, including top positions in employment. Another respondent thought that in the case of divorce the mother of a child always gets the custody of the children.

On the other hand, some respondents have Finnish friends who have aided their integration into the society. One respondent especially has a balance in her relationships: she has networks both in the immigrant and Finnish communities. My observation is that her knowledge of the Finnish language, and therefore Finnish society, has helped her to make and maintain these useful networks.

Interaction with the society

Participation in the labour market is important for the respondents. Four of them were employed at the time of the interview. Of the three women who were not employed, one was studying Finnish language to enhance her possibility to enter the labour market, while another was waiting to have a baby. The third was partly caring for two small children and partly studying. For women the possibility to socialise and interact with others is a major reason for wanting to be in the labour market. Two of the women were not satisfied with their jobs as they could not relate to other workers because of the nature of the jobs.

Possibilities that further education gives to immigrants in Finland, e.g. language education, socialising and network creating prospects have encouraged the respondents to participate. Through friendships made at institutes of learning, two respondents were given information about job vacancies which they eventually got. Language education organised by the Ministry of Labour through its District Labour Offices is available for immigrants who belong to certain resident permit categories. The result of this regulation is that immigrants who do not belong to such categories have to seek Finnish language education elsewhere.

All the respondents socialise and relate with the society in arenas other than places of work and study. The church is one area of interaction which most women mentioned. Through participation in church services and activities organised by the churches they attend, the respondents have made friends and sometimes get networked into the church community.

The women who live in the Helsinki area have related to Finns through cultural parties which certain associations have arranged for immigrants and Finns. At such meetings, immigrant communities have had the possibility to present their cultures and give the possibility for members of the larger society and immigrants to interact. International meeting points have given the respondents a chance to learn more about Finnish society and to interact with others at more regular intervals and in informal surroundings.

Other factors affecting the acculturation of immigrants

According to Berry, to determine how members of immigrant or minority communities are acculturating, the researcher ought to examine the efforts immigrants are making to acculturate, the attitudes of members of the host society, and the official policy of the government.

The results of Jaakkola's (1995) research indicate that, though there are Finns whose attitudes towards foreigners are positive, most Finns have a negative attitude towards foreigners. When compared to other foreign groups in Finland most Finns have especially a very negative attitude towards Africans. The experiences of some of the respondents in my study corroborate with Jaakkola's findings.

Finland has no official immigration policy. This study indicates that the lack of a policy has negative effects on the well-being of the women under study especially because they are non refugees. Some respondents have had difficulties with officials who did not know how to serve immigrants because of the inability to categorise them. If there was a policy which states clearly the responsibilities of officials to all members of the society, such problems would not arise.

The influence of language on the acculturation of immigrants.

The questions posed to respondents ranged from information about their backgrounds to their relations to the civil servants with whom they have dealings. Responses to some of the questions and themes indicate the role of proper knowledge of Finnish language for immigrants. It was observed that a lack of fluency in Finnish language affects all areas of the life of immigrants in Finnish society.

One respondent does not know her civil and social rights, while another receives information but does not fully understand it because the information is written and her knowledge of Finnish language is minimal. According to the respondent, she was given the brochures in response to some questions she asked from an official. The official must have assumed the respondent read Finnish because she spoke some Finnish. There is, however, a difference in spoken and written Finnish. Probably because of the inability to read and understand Finnish text, most of the women receive oral information usually through a third party.

The knowledge most respondents have about their rights in Finland, their duties, and of the society are from the people with whom they can communicate. Of seven respondents, only one respondent said she has sufficient information needed and knows where and how to seek more should the need arise. A second respondent has basic knowledge of her civil responsibilities from a Finnish language course provided by the District Labour Office where instructions were given.

There are several factors which affect the possibilities of immigrants to study the Finnish language. The services immigrants receive from the State (i.e. Finnish government and its organs) are determined by their residential status (see Komiteamietintö, 1997). Therefore, not all immigrants have access to courses organised by the District Labour Office.

Immigrants who do not possess the residential status which qualifies them for the language education offered by the District Labour Office have to seek their language education from elsewhere. Women who are students might have the possibility to study Finnish at their institutions of learning. This means that immigrant women who are not students, and who are not qualified to use the services of the Labour Office have narrow possibilities to learn the language.

My data indicates that language education should be available for all immigrants irrespective of their residential status. A proper knowledge of the language is beneficial for immigrants as it enables them to be aware of the events in society and informs them about matters concerning them. In 1994, a regulation was made by the Ministry of Labour about the services and benefits members of the society receive, immigrant groups were affected too. One of the affected respondents said immigrants are not notified of changes concerning them in law until they break the law.

One of the respondents who moved from one town to another around the time the regulation was made thought Finnish towns have different rules for immigrants. This misunderstanding of the happenings in society could cause immigrants to come to wrong conclusions. It can be assumed that these changes were in the national news but the affected persons did not 'receive' the news due to lack of comprehension.


The above are some of the major factors which determine the integration of immigrants. To some extent, individual immigrants could work with these factors and thereby overcome the obstacles posed by them. To develop the language capacity of immigrants, the support of the government is needed.

An overall analysis indicates that the women in my study are coming to terms with living in a culture and environment which is different from theirs. They are making all possible efforts to adjust to living in Finnish cultural environment as they encounter it. For example, they make conscious efforts to learn the way of life in Finnish society in order to live by the societal norms. They are aware that because of climatic differences some habits, e.g. certain forms of eating, dressing and socialising have to be dropped.

The analysis of the responses of all the women in the study indicates that the women would want to integrate into the society. This means that they wish to remain loyal to their cultures, practice the practicable aspects of it in Finland and at the same time participate as an integral part of the larger social network. A lack of understanding of the background of these women by members of the host society, discrimination and miscommunication of societal rules etc. are the factors which make the integration strategy difficult to achieve.

Based on my study, it is difficult to attempt to locate the position of African women as a group in the Finnish society, since they evidently have very diverse backgrounds. Berry's theory posits four acculturation strategies. According to data collected, the respondents were using the integration strategy but it could not be concluded that these individuals are being integrated into the society. In some spheres of their lives, they are integrated or are being integrated into the society. In some other spheres, they are marginalised and excluded. There were no cases of assimilation.

In this study, most respondents had limited knowledge of the Finnish language. Because of this, difficulties arise with communicating and receiving information from the Finnish society. The lack of fluency in the language causes marginalisation irrespective of the option to integrate.


Berry, J. W. (1995). Immigration, Acculturation, and Psychological Adaptation. An article prepared for Applied Psychology, An international Review.

Jaakkola, M. (1995). Suomalaisten kiristyvät ulkomaalaisasenteet. Työpoliittinen tutkimus 101. Painatuskeskus. Helsinki.

Komiteamietintö (1997:5). Hallittu maahanmuutto ja tehokas kotoutuminen: ehdotus hallituksen maahanmuutto- ja pakolaispoliittiseksi ohjelmaksi. Sisäasiainministeriö, Edita.

Strauss, A., and Corbin, J.(1990) Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, California Sage.

Olukemi Oguntuyi, graduate student
University of Joensuu