Muhammed Shire and Johanna Ennser-Kananen: “Your Finnish is not good enough” and other myths migrants face on the job market

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Migrant Tales insight: I would like to personally thank Muhammed Shire and Johanna Ennser-Kananen for shedding light on some age-old myths surrounding migrants and minorities in Finland. As sensible people interested in the best proactive solutions that are in line with our Nordic welfare state values, we should not only look at ways of challenging such myths but replacing them with effective solutions. 

Like most problems facing our ever-growing culturally diverse community, myths and blame are placed on us for not “trying hard enough” or “for not knowing enough” to land that job. Even our integration act, which came into force in 2011, makes no mention about racism and discrimination as obstacles to adaption because it plays down the impact of such social ills. Thus the burden of proof continues to be unfairly dumped on migrants and members of the minority community. 

We must change the order of things not only because discrimination and racism ruins lives and are costly, but because we must live up to our Nordic values concerning fair and equal treatment. Not doing so or leaving such matters to chance is synonymous to shooting oneself in the leg. 

If you are a migrant who has applied for educational programs or jobs, chances are that you have heard some of the following myths. In this article, we debunk them by explaining their racist nature.

Finland has one of the highest disparities between EU and non-EU citizens. For more information go to Eurostat

Myth #1: “Your Finnish is not good enough for alternative options.”

Of course we can’t and don’t want to deny the important role language can play in integration and participation processes. However, the common belief that high proficiency in the socially dominant (in our case Finnish) language will automatically open doors to professional or educational success is overly simplistic and ample research exists that debunks this myth (see, for example, Ennser-Kananen & Pettitt, under review; Krumm & Plutzar, 2008). When migrants apply for jobs, language oftentimes becomes a substitute for race, ethnicity, or other social factors like gender and religion. This happens, for instance, when employers argue (and even convince themselves) that qualified applicants with migration backgrounds “do not meet their language demands” without adequately assessing their (often multilingual) language skills and without considering or supporting their language development on the job. Arguments based on “insufficient Finnish proficiency” are easy to make because they appear to be more politically correct than those based on race, religion, or gender. In addition, they are difficult to assess for the average person without training in language acquisition, so that applicants are often left with arguments that are not valid or not convincingly supported by linguistic evidence.

If you are faced with such an argument (“your Finnish is not good enough”), ask for exact explanations of the linguistic demands for the job or program you are applying and, importantly, ask for evidence of your failure to meet them. In other words, someone needs to explain to you what the Finnish language requirements are and why they are sure that you don’t meet them. Your (former) language teachers can be excellent allies in this process. They understand language assessment, especially of multilingual language learners, and usually have experience in assessing and advocating for you. Most importantly, they understand language proficiency in the context of your overall experience at school and in Finland. In addition to your teachers, the co-author of this article, Johanna Ennser-Kananen ([email protected]), is also happy to advise you in such situations. When you request explanations and evidence from an employer, you might also want to inquire about the possibility to develop your language skills on the job. Employers who are genuinely interested in you will sometimes find ways for you to to develop your Finnish as part of your workload. (Yes, it happens! And it should happen more.) In case you do not receive all the information you ask for, consider contacting Migrant Tales ([email protected]) for advice on this matter and potentially filing a report on discrimination.

Don’t be a bystander! If you observe language policies that seem to disadvantage people of color, migrants, or other minoritized groups, don’t be silent. Ask questions! Ask yourself and the promoters of such policies if a member of a majority, e.g. a person from a so-called Western Europe, a white person would be treated the same way. (As a white European migrant, Johanna has noted quite a difference.) Contact us if you would like to discuss potential further steps.

Myth #2: “You can always start with Ammattikoulu (vocational school), get a job, and go to university after that.”

If you want to go to high school and university but you are advised against it and instead start with vocational school, you are right to have your doubts about this recommendation. Statistics about how many migrant students go on to college after Ammattikoulu are either non-existent or tricky to find for the Finnish context (if anyone finds them, please contact us), but we can learn from other places.

In the US context, Kanno and Varghese’s (2010) research with immigrants and refugees showed that English learners who enrolled in community colleges (i.e. a shorter and less prestigious educational track) hardly ever ended up transitioning to the more prestigious 4-year universities, even when they had every intention to do so. Changing educational pathways takes a lot of social, cultural, and emotional capital and can add financial, social, and emotional insecurity and instability to a person’s life. A transition or a new beginning is not something that is easy and quick to do, especially for people who have little experience with Finnish educational systems and policies and cannot afford to take financial or social risks. In addition, migrants often face societal pressure to contribute to the workforce, which can silence their wish to attend university and pursue their career of choice.

If you receive a recommendation to delay your professional or educational plans that go against your aspirations, for example from a career counsellor, ask for specific details about the transitional process, for example: Why can’t you start with your education/profession of choice? Will postponing your path of choice lose you money or time? Will you have to move? Will your credits transfer? Who can help you make the transition? What are the advantages and disadvantages of starting a job and postponing additional education?

Although transitions are not inherently a bad thing, they can make you lose sight of your actual goals and cause you to settle for less than you are able and wanting to do. Weigh the pros and cons carefully and make sure your next steps support your long-term goals before making a decision. Remember that the reason why someone might recommend an Ammattikoulu (vocational school) rather than a university education might be their limited imagination rather than your limited skills. In other words, maybe they have never imagined a migrant, a person of color, or a Muslim getting a higher education degree in Finland. Maybe in their imagination, universities are populated by only white first-language-Finnish-speaking locals. Any advice tainted by such racist ideologies should not decide about your future. Get another opinion.

Myth #3: “It takes too long to go to university.”

When I, Johanna, a white European woman hear this statement, I always wonder: Would anyone tell this to my white Finnish-speaking children? Would any parent or teacher of a white Finnish-born young adult discourage them from choosing a career because it “takes too long”? Of course, timing can be an issue, and migrants who had to leave their homes and jobs and start over in a new country often feel financial and social pressure to become part of the Finnish workforce as quickly as possible. (Quite often, migrants themselves are convinced that they can’t or shouldn’t go to university. But that’s a topic for another day.) Two things are needed: First, we need educational programs that address this reality by preparing migrants for high-level jobs while at the same time offering them financial stability. Such programs need to be tailored to each individual who is interested in pursuing a higher degree, regardless of their prior schooling, race, language, gender, or religion. We know of so many migrants, people of color, Muslims, women, people with little or no prior schooling, who escaped discrimination and want to be educated in Finland. What is really standing in the way of this? Second, we need to actively challenge the stigma of adults engaging in lengthy educational programs. Attending college cannot become a privilege of recent secondary school graduates who enjoyed the advantage of schooling that was interrupted by war, persecution, and/or resettlement. In order to make secondary and tertiary education accessible and welcoming to everyone, we need adequate career counselling throughout the duration of the program that considers a prospective student’s overall life experience, goals, and situation as well as academic, personal, and financial support and opportunities.

When (over)hearing arguments such as “it takes too long to go to university”, it can be useful to ask questions: Why is there pressure to start a job as soon as possible? What would it mean to choose a different route? What resources are available that haven’t been tapped or even mentioned yet? Please contact us if you are interested in receiving advice about these or similar questions. In the end, change can only be effective with appropriate policies and long-term initiatives, but a lot can be achieved against all odds when adequate support systems are put in place.

Myth #4:”Immigrants are so good at cleaning and caretaking jobs.”

Statements like these are not arguments, in best case, a thoughtless and racist reiteration of neoliberal ideologies, which suggest that the role of migrants is to fill the (alleged) gaps in the Finnish economic and social system. They are also pointing to the problem that many low-paying and low-prestige positions (e.g., cleaners, cooks, waiters) are mostly filled by migrants in Finland (ENAR, 2016). Fittingly, Muhammed Shire calls racist generalizations like the one above, “polite discrimination”: While dressed up as compliments, these statements are based on ideologies that see migrants as members of an “underclass” that is destined to do low-paying jobs, for example in the service, hospitality, or health care industry. Migrants on the job market are facing such ideologies that are promoted by people who hold up white Finnish-born citizens as the norm and have not, cannot, or don’t want to imagine and accept black university professors, Muslim lawyers, or Iraqi teachers, etc. as part of Finnish society. Encouraging and pushing people to imagine such identities is maybe one of the biggest responsibilities and challenges for today’s educators, politicians, and scholars. We need to not only imagine but actively create pathways and support systems for members of minoritized groups, such as people of color, migrants, Muslims, etc. to unfold their potential and become what they really want to be – especially in high-paying, prestigious positions, where they can serve as role models for generations after them (Kananen, 2017).

When witnessing or facing polite discrimination, it can sometimes be helpful to explicitly name it and address its harmful nature. For example, a witness of such a racist statement might want to point out that people are usually good at something because they have received appropriate training for it. As it is exactly racist and determinist ideologies like the ones that surface in such statements that limit migrants job and educational prospects, another appropriate answer could be “And such beliefs are part of the reasons that keep migrants from moving up.”

All the myths above reflect first-hand experiences of migrants in Finland, but the list is in no way complete and we could go on and on and on … To conclude, migrants face a lot of pressure that members of the Finnish-first-language-speaking, white majority do not have to worry about. It’s time to actively challenge discrimination and white privilege in application processes. We hope this article will stimulate some discussion and action. Bring it on! ✊



ENAR Shadow Report 2015-16 on racism and migration in Europe: Key findings. Retrieved on May 5, 2017, from


Ennser-Kananen, J. & Pettitt, N. (under review). “I want to speak like the other people”: L2 learning as a virtuous spiral for migrant women? International Review of Education – Journal for Lifelong Learning.


Kananen, M. (2017). Uga waramay baaritaankii uu sameeyay. SnTV Finland. Retrieved on May 8, 2017, from


Kanno, Y., & Varghese, M. M. (2010). Immigrant and refugee ESL students’ challenges to accessing four-year college education: From language policy to educational policy. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 9(5), 310-328.
Krumm, H. J., & Plutzar, V. (2008). Tailoring language provision and requirements to the needs and capacities of adult migrants. Thematic Study V. Council of Europe: Strasbourg.

  1. JusticeDemon

    –”Even our integration act, which came into force in 2011, makes no mention about racism and discrimination as obstacles to adaption because it plays down the impact of such social ills.”

    This remark is unfair.

    Section 1 of the Integration Act (1386/2010) reads as follows (translation by Finlex):

    “The purpose of this Act is to support and promote integration and make it easier for immigrants to play an active role in Finnish society. The purpose of the Act is also to promote gender equality and non-discrimination and positive interaction between different population groups.”

    Even a perfunctory search of the statute text reveals that the Act refers at least 8 times to promoting good ethnic relations and intercultural dialogue.

    It is important to understand that the Act primarily obliges local authorities to provide certain services. These authorities are already bound by statutes and regulations on racism and discrimination. In particular the Non-discrimination Act (21/2004) imposes a direct duty to plan and implement concrete measures against racism and discrimination, and to promote non-discrimination actively and systematically. The scope of this duty expressly includes immigrant integration plans.

    The main background document to the Integration Act is government bill no. 185/2010, which focuses specifically on combating racism at several points. The impact of racism on immigrant integration is discussed in the general motivations for the legislation on page 58:

    Esityksessä ehdotetaan, että kuntien kotouttamisohjelmiin voitaisiin sisällyttää suunnitelmat hyvien etnisten suhteiden edistämiseksi sekä maahanmuuttajaryhmien osallisuuden ja oman kulttuurin ylläpitämisen tukemiseksi. Kotouttamisohjelmien kyseisillä suunnitelmilla edistettäisiin eri väestöryhmien välistä myönteistä vuorovaikutusta, joka puolestaan parantaisi osaltaan maahanmuuttajien kotoutumismahdollisuuksia ja motivaatiota, edesauttaisi kielen oppimista ja ympäröivän yhteiskunnan arvoihin tutustumista. Verkostot kantaväestöön ja muihin maahanmuuttajiin toimivat usein myös epävirallisina kanavina työllistymisessä. Rasismin ja syrjinnän kokemuksilla puolestaan voi olla pitkäaikaisiakin negatiivisia vaikutuksia paitsi yksilön hyvinvointiin myös kotoutumiseen.

    • Migrant Tales

      The law may promote non-discrimination and intercultural dialogue but it’s a totally different thing how it is applied. And there must be a lot of regional difference. Some places it works better than in others. The point, I believe, that the authors are making is a well-known myth in Finland concerning integration: Lean our language and culture and everything will fall in its rightful place. This may be true but it suggests two things: language is a panacea for your problems (the more you know the less discrimination you’ll suffer) and that the burden of your integration falls on your lap. Do these things and things will work out.

      At schools where migrants are learning the language and about Finnish society, there is a common misperception and too much emphasis on learning the language. Too often, I suspect, the problem is also fueled by denial that racism is a serious issue in Finnish society. The fact that it takes for some 5-7 years before they can start to look for a job seriously shows another flaw. It is unfortunate that some have to invest so many years of their lives to get a job, which is usually low-paying.

      Integration, as the act states, is a two-way street. Even so, by not addressing our issues with it seriously enough and telling migrants to “just learn the language and you’ll be ok” just doesn’t cut it. The integration plan must teach migrants to become active citizens by challenging those social ills that hinder them. As one person, Bruno Eddy, put it: “Integration policies need to first address inequalities, break down all institutional barriers, restructure systematic bias etc., before implementation. Same blueprints can be applied to recruitment process. Equity chances, liberation, and assistance of those in need of support to access various social welfare production systems such as employment, labour market, education, housing, etc.”

      You know perfectly well the problems and challenges on the official side about tackling discrimination and racism in Finland. We still haven’t given enough teeth to the non-discrimination ombudsman to handle discrimination cases at the workplace and slap fines.

      I’m certain that the non-discrimination act’s aim is noble but it is a totally different story if it is effective and what it implies at the end of the day for the newcomer.

  2. JusticeDemon

    Unwillingness to admit even the most obvious error is one reason why disinformation is such a serious problem in online forums.

    The ATL remark concerned the specific content of the Integration Act. As demonstrated above, this remark was incorrect in terms of the text of the statute and the declared intention of the legislator. It does not take much homework to verify this. All of the documents are freely available, and some have even been published in English.

    It’s not clear why Migrant Tales should seek to trivialise the work and second guess the motives of the immigrants who were involved in reforming the Integration Act and drafting the Non-discrimination Act.