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To a more international HEI through language and cultural awareness

Published on 26.1.2023
Tampere University of Applied Sciences
opiskelija Alexander FedchinAlexander Fedchin studies software engineering at Tampere University of Applied Sciences. At the same time he is studying Finnish language. "You are truly learning a new language when you are learning Finnish", he states.
The number of international students, projects and cooperation has increased at Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK) in the past years. It can be seen in the expansion of English-language education and especially Finnish as a second language education. Internationalisation calls for development of staff’s and students’ language skills and cultural knowledge.

TAMK’s School of Pedagogical Innovations and Culture was set several objectives concerning promotion of internationalisation, such as increase in English-language education and participation in international events, projects and education export. In 2023, TAMK will also draw up a language vision and support students who are completing their studies in English.

“Internationality is considered for example in education provision, grant system and services for outgoing exchange students. All this concerns language and communications teachers’ work in many ways,” tells Head of Competence Area Kaisa-Leena Ahlroth.

According to Ahlroth, the objectives are achieved through joint planning of work, use of staff competence and when needed complementation of competence through language education and international exchanges as well as pair or team teaching. Competence is shared between colleagues and in projects in an encouraging atmosphere.

Learning Finnish is challenging

Alexander Fedchin is studying his first year in TAMK’s English Degree Programme in Software Engineering. He has always been good with computers and the programming field interests him. Fedchin was born and raised in St. Petersburg in Russia, where he completed his upper secondary education with excellent grades. He chose to move to Tampere because he for years had a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend here.

Even if Fedchin is studying in English, he tries hard to learn Finnish.

“It is absolutely necessary to know Finnish when living in Finland. Finnish language skills also determine how much I have to pay for my studies next academic year.”

Studies are subject to a charge for non-EU/EEC students. Students may have a grant to lower the fee if they can demonstrate that they have developed their Finnish language skills in accordance with TAMK’s grant system.

After the autumn semester, Fedchin sums up that Finnish is a very difficult language to learn. Fedchin considers that Finnish differs from many other languages he has studied, that is English and German. He thinks that English was relatively easy to learn and German was not difficult either.

“By difficult, I mean that the Finnish language even has its own names for all countries. I believed that all languages call my country with a word beginning with Rus or Ros. But it was a shock for me that Finns call it Venäjä. The grammar is also completely different from other European languages. You are truly learning a new language when you are learning Finnish.”

Internationalisation is about respect for diversity

Even if Tampere University of Applied Sciences has high internationalisation objectives, students and staff need advice and encouragement for meeting international students and colleagues. Above all, Alexander Fedchin hopes to have understanding from other people.

“Understanding of that we are all different. Even if someone lives and studies in your country, you cannot force them to share your culture. It is a question of patience and acceptance of diversity. There is no need to make other people like yourself or prove that they are wrong.”

Kirsi Saarinen, who teaches the English language for degree students, thinks that it is crucial to increase teachers’ language and cultural awareness to eliminate structural racism related to language skills in universities of applied sciences.

“Language awareness means recognition of the diversity of languages and the fact that the language and contents cannot be separated from one another. When teachers teach contents, they also teach the field-specific language and work as a related model.

lehtori Kirsi Saarinen
"Language awareness also means understanding of the development of language skills, which is an individual and bumpy process", says Senior Lecturer Kirsi Saarinen.

Cultural awareness includes both ethnic, teaching-related and study-related cultures and related expectations.

“Increase in cultural awareness is based on teachers considering and recognising their personal expectations: what operational, study-related and teaching-related expectations do I have and how they are manifested in my teaching.”

For foreign students, the language is both a learning instrument and target. Saarinen encourages teachers to assess their language, learning materials, emails and news from students’ viewpoint.

“What contents could I emphasise or illustrate? Is there something linguistically challenging in my text? Could it be expressed in some other, clearer way?”

It is worth mapping students’ study-related and teaching-related expectations for example through initial surveys, observation and discussion. Students should also be informed of teachers’ study-related expectations and TAMK’s and course-related practices.

“Accessible teaching is also very important in eliminating structural racism. The diversity of students has to be considered in planning and implementation of teaching. Students participate in study situations with their background and prior experiences. Teaching methods should also be diverse. Students’ needs and different ways of learning have to be considered in teaching,” Saarinen emphasises.

Head of Competence Area Kaisa-Leena Ahlroth tells that student feedbacks are processed in each period and always when necessary, assessment methods are diversified and teachers are encouraged to use different pedagogical solutions and experiments in their teaching. Projects offer excellent possibilities to identify practices and develop procedures.

Teachers are also offered different education possibilities. For example, the Teaching and Learning Centre organises language and cultural awareness education for TAMK’s whole staff. In 2022, its provision included for example Kirsi Saarinen’s course called Teaching in English at UAS. 

Language studies based on individual competence level

In Kaisa-Leena Ahlroth’s opinion, the narrowing language skills and language provision are concerning.

“The language is a key to communication. Working life also needs experts who know other languages than English. Good Finnish language skills have an important role in employment of students with an immigrant background. TAMK aims at enabling and strengthening expert-level language skills in a variety of languages in cooperation between other higher education institutions and our skilled teachers.”

TAMK students are supported in developing their language skills by offering a range of courses. Before professional language courses, students are offered preparatory language studies in English and Swedish.

In Finnish as a second language studies, students’ language learning is supported during their entire study time. Students are referred to the right-level Finnish language courses. The Talent Boost and SIMHE programmes offer advanced level Finnish language studies.

“The purpose of the language path idea is that all international degree students can start their Finnish language studies at their own competence level,” Kirsi Saarinen says.

Students may also choose language studies from TAMK’s free-choice studies: through the open UAS, Summer University of Tampere, Tampere University’s cross-institutional study service and which includes courses offered by universities of applied sciences. Students can for example start a new language or continue their earlier language studies on KiVANET network’s courses.

Students who have good language skills may demonstrate their language competence or use other alternative modes of study. Students who need to develop their basic language skills are offered preparatory studies. On language and communication courses, teachers also consider and offer different modes of studying and learning a language and communications: for example written assignments or alternatively videos. Assignments may be divided into parts and additional time offered.

“If students have need for individual support for example due to learning difficulties, they can be granted individual study arrangements. Sparris study skills workshops are offered in Finnish and English,” Saarinen tells.

Alexander Fedchin thinks that his Finnish language studies have progressed well on TAMK’s courses and he also practises his language skills with his friends when revising for exams.

“TAMK offers me support if I need it. I know about TAMK’s Finnish Language Club which I can freely join. Unfortunately, I have never been there, even though I wanted to, but I will try to go to the club before my final Finnish exam in the spring,” Fedchin tells.


Text: Emmi Rämö
Photos: Emmi Suominen