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“Could your classmates translate this for you?” – The beauty and pain of multilingualism at the University of Oulu

University of Oulu has about 1,900 students every year who use English as their primary studying language. This includes exchange students, international degree students and postgraduate students. But how well does the University meet the needs of its English speaking students? Anca M. Catana discusses the issue.

‘Could your classmates translate this for you?’

I don’t know how often you heard this statement from lecturers during your studies at the University of Oulu, but during my 3 years of studying the Intercultural Teacher Education (ITE) programme I heard it, a lot!

Short answer: no, they can’t. And that is not because they don’t possess the skills. Most of them do.

But is it really their job to do that? Are they rewarded for it somehow? Or are they eventually losing more than gaining by doing this?

Let’s start with the first question: Is it really my classmates’ job to translate the lesson content or the instructions of the assignments to us? If we think about professional interpreters, they usually have studies in the field and their earning starts from 40 euros per hour.

Do my classmates have the same level of education? Not really. Are they receiving any financial reward near that? Nope.

Actually, the amount of information that reaches everyone in this manner is problematic. The ‘helpful classmate’ will probably lose a good share of the lecture. And the part that is finally reaching us is probably less than half.

The result is a lose-lose situation for everybody: our classmates, us and the teachers who don’t get to do their job as well as they would like to.

How much is the teachers’ responsibility?

I occasionally hear fellow international students complain about teachers and teaching. Of course it is tempting to blame those whose job is to make sure that their classes are accessible and inclusive.

On the other hand, based on my experience, teachers often blame the limited number of contact lessons, the cutting of the funds or the general decisions made at a higher level for the difficulties encountered by the foreign students.

From my perspective, in the Faculty of Education at least, teachers face different challenges. Based on those, they could be divided into three categories: the ones teaching exclusively in Finnish, the ones teaching exclusively in English and the ones teaching both in Finnish and English.

The first two categories are probably doing fine most of the time. Teachers prepare the content of the lesson in one language and deliver it as many times as necessary. What occasionally happens is that the non-Finnish speaking students have to take part in the Finnish-taught classes or the other way around. The most common reason is that they missed the lesson conducted in English/Finnish and now they have to make up for it. Both Finnish-speaking and English-speaking students seem to suffer in this situation and extra support is offered only sometimes.

The third category of teachers is probably more challenged due to the fact that besides preparing the material in one language, the teacher has to prepare it once more in a second language. Is that the same amount of work as for teachers in categories one and two? Nope, I’d say it’s at least double the work. Are teachers rewarded enough for all the extra effort? Probably not, considering their commitment shown during the lessons.

In the Faculty of Education alone, there are some 45 international students admitted annually to the Masters and ITE programmes and the number is doubled by the number of exchange students.

The situation affects the international students in different ways. For example, I’ve noticed that some of the teachers who conduct their lessons both in English and Finnish seem to be less motivated or less resourceful when teaching the English version. Moreover summer courses are scarce (only two of them are held in English), optional courses are rarely offered in English, and for the ITE students it’s a challenge to find a Minor Subject. Under these circumstances, the option of joining a class taught in Finnish comes at hand. The teachers will most likely welcome you. But even if they are well intended, they frequently lack the instruments needed to save you from drowning.

Are there any solutions?

One easy way to solve the language problem would include not having any international students without Finnish skills, at all.

However, we’re still aiming for an international, multilingual, multicultural, inclusive university, right? Not to forget the tuition fees that range from 10,000 to 13,000 euros.

If we’re really aiming for an international university, these positive expressions should be acted upon, not just left to decorate university’s web site and posters.

Going back to ‘Can your classmates translate this for you?’, even though the way it happens today doesn’t really work, the basic idea could still be used in another form.

What about inviting students from the English philology programme, or any other students who feel up to the task, to act as semi-professional interpreters, but in a more organised and rewarding way? It would be essential that the students in question are not registered to that respective course, so they don’t have to learn the content they need to translate. They should also be rewarded somehow, either by credits or by payment.

Teachers could help by handing out a summary of the lesson to the interpreter before the actual lesson, or they could simply speak at a slower pace.

Here’s couple of other ways in which the teachers can help their non-Finnish speaking students catch up with what is happening. They can write clearly and explicitly in English what the assignments to that course are and how it is assessed, because in the end that is what hurts us the most. Even making a list with key-terms in English and Finnish might be a useful tool for teachers, Finnish and non-Finnish students alike.

Regarding the teachers, I’d say one of the major things is that they need more support in delivering their lessons to their non-Finnish speaking students. It’s not only my personal opinion, but what other fellow non-Finnish students I encountered suggest.

Supporting the development of staff’s English skills is a long-term investment from which everyone will benefit.

Secondly, there should be reward for those lecturers who do extra work when having English-speaking students in the Finnish-taught classes, or who teach in two or more languages, even if the lesson content is the same.

I still remember the situation I witnessed during my very first weeks of studies at this University. An exchange student ran out of the class crying, because the class was taught completely in Finnish. She was supposed to take it as part of her study agreement, and the class was supposed to be designed for international students.

What I truly believe is that with the right effort, time and financial investment and a bit of courage and interest situations like that could be avoided in the future.

Then the University of Oulu could indeed become ‘a model of multiculturalism’ as the Rector Jouko Niinimäki wrote on his blog on March 1st 2019.


This story was originally published on Oulu Student Magazine’s second print issue of the year, on 11th of April 2019.

Read more: Language can bring community together or break it apart.

Anca M. Catana

Education student, theater enthusiast, nature lover. Curious, spontaneous and ambitious, open for new challenges.

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