One bright morning in the middle of the night: A postcard from Finland

James Simpson writes from the University of Jyväskylä , where he’s spending the summer months.

Earlier this year I received the most generous invitation – to spend three months as an academic visitor at the Centre for Applied Language Studies, University of Jyväskylä. So here I am, courtesy of the University’s fund to develop its research profile.

The Centre is internationally known and rightly renowned for its specialism in practices and policies of language education. The University itself is one of Finland’s oldest, founded in 1863 as the first Finnish-language teacher training college in the country, Jyväskylä Teacher Seminary. As such it takes its place in Finland’s long history of language ideological debate. Up to then, Swedish had been the only authorised language of education. Discussion is still heated in policy circles and in the public sphere, around the relative status of Swedish and Finnish in this officially bilingual country. Swedish until quite recently was the main administrative language, though today only around 5% of Finns claim Swedish as their mother tongue. Debates over Finnish versus Swedish have also long been fuel for Finnish nationalist movements. Incidentally discussion has deepened into dispute since the rise of the populist nationalist Finns Party, currently a coalition partner in government. The Finns Party leader in Parliament has served as the minister for foreign affairs, and is now the deputy prime minister. The Party’s policy on language and migration supports the granting of Finnish nationality after five years’ residence in Finland. Interestingly though, Finnish citizenship can be applied for through taking a test either in Finnish or Swedish. The number of test-takers is growing steadily in both languages. Centre for Applied Language Studies at the University of Jyväskylä is responsible for the national test certificates system.

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 21.32.09

Agora Building

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 21.32.40

Lake

The University is very international: its 15000 students come from over 100 countries, making the small city of Jyväskylä a vibrant and lively place. My commitment while here is to write with my Finnish colleagues, to prepare a bid for research funding for a project about adult education and migration, and to interact with staff and students (difficult now, as July is Finland’s holiday month and the university is quite deserted). I’ll also be leading a two-day seminar on the TLang project, on 9-10 September.

This isn’t my first visit. I was here first in 2012 for the LESLLA conference, again in 2014 for the Sociolinguistics Symposium , and for a week-long mini-sabbatical last year. So I’m familiar with some of the useful collaborative working practices, some of which I’ll be bringing back to Leeds. These include twice-daily coffee at 8.30 and 2pm, where everyone in the centre downs tools and joins their colleagues for a cup of coffee and a chat. No-one is so busy that they can’t stop and chat with their colleagues a couple of times a day. Also lunch in the subsidised staff/student canteen, redolent of school dinners though it may be, is a convivial affair.

The city – Finland’s fifth largest – sits on a lake, Jyväsjärvi, in central Finland’s lake district, around 4 hours north of Helsinki on the train. The journey from the capital passes through increasingly lovely countryside, a rolling wooded landscape studded with lakes, often with just one solitary house on the shore, with a boat tied to a jetty. The town is the birthplace of the noted modernist architect and designer Alvar Aalto, whose museum is on the university campus and whose buildings from the span of his long career are scattered through the town.

Railway workers’ apartments and cultural centre

His buildings are understated and functional, but at closer sight they are deeply pleasing, fitting very well the landscape and also the town itself.

Inward migration is a fairly recent phenomenon in Finland, and only 5% of the population were born outside the country. In Jyväskylä the proportion is surely a lot higher. I’ve borrowed a bicycle. It needed adjusting, and happily, three doors up from my apartment is a bicycle repair shop. “Hello”, I called as I went in. “You’re not Finnish”, came a voice from the depths. “Nor are you”, I replied as the owner emerged. We got chatting. Walid is from Sudan, came to Jyväskylä 20 years ago, and has three boys (this we have in common) and a Finnish wife. He returns to Sudan most Decembers (“I hate the winter here”). Another Sudanese mechanic was toiling over a bent derailleur in the background. While I was fixing my saddle a student from Malaysia came in to buy a second-hand bike.

All in all this is an interesting place, and now that it’s stopped raining, one where I’m very happy to be. And another thing – at this time of year it doesn’t really get dark at all.

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