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Read Together to get a handle on Finnish

Finnish is best learnt by speaking it with other people. This was the conclusion reached ten years ago in Vantaa, where the first Read Together club was established for immigrant women. Now there are over 80 active clubs like it in Finland, six of which are in Vaasa. Although the club was originally envisioned for women only, men are now welcome in some groups.

Mustekynä oppikirjaa lukevan pakolaisen kädessä.
Image: Timo Heikura / Yle

Read Together clubs for immigrant women don’t focus on reading together per se, but on teaching everyday Finnish skills together with other women.

This year the Read Together club for immigrant women celebrates its 10th anniversary. The idea has remained the same since its inception: to teach the Finnish language with a volunteer workforce and at the same time support the social integration of immigrants.

“A group of women noticed that women coming to Finland from foreign countries needed help, for example, in shopping at the store,” says Kristi Eneberg, who's led a Read Together club in Vaasa for the last five years.

From its humble beginnings the idea grew and now there are almost 80 Read Together clubs throughout the country, featuring over 400 volunteer teachers and over 1,100 students. Since the clubs started in Vaasa in 2007, more groups have been founded continuously. The city currently hosts six groups, four of which are exclusive to women.

“The groups are open to all women. If you feel the need to learn the Finnish language, you're welcome. We focus on learning conversational Finnish,” says Eneberg.

Come all, serve all

Some women who have arrived in Finland from war zones have not had the opportunity to go to school for years. This means that some clubs have women who are totally illiterate, alongside others who hold Master’s degrees and PhDs.

“People come to us from very different situations, at first we can use English as an auxiliary language, but there are also others who only speak their mother tongue. In cases like these, we have to resort to gestures and body language. We've managed surprisingly well,” says Eneberg.

Although the women’s education and backgrounds may differ, the clubs are not organised along those lines. Clubs are often divided into woman-to-woman pairs, where someone who may be more advanced teaches another.

The teacher doesn’t have to be a teacher

The majority of clubs’ instructors are retired schoolteachers. Pedagogical skills are useful, but other kinds of teachers are also welcome.

“The idea is to serve as models. We speak Finnish like Finnish women speak the language, in our own way. It's enough!” Eneberg proclaims.

She has signed on to help with the club after her retirement. There is also room for those who are still in working life, as the load is not supposed to be overwhelming for anyone involved.  Eneberg, however, has noticed that she,s become caught up in the club.

“It truly is a window to the world,” she says.

Women in the Vaasa group originate from countries like Iran, Iraq, Somalia, the Sudan, Congo and Russia.  The club will hold an open house after its move to Vöyrinkatu in May, for people to get to know its operations better.

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