At nine months old, Majeste is a very active baby.
Crawling around, and on the verge of walking on his own, Majeste is getting under tables, inquisitive about everything he can put his hands on from radiator pipes to computer cables and all sorts of brightly coloured toys.
While Majeste might not be talking yet, he is already learning the fundamentals of three languages, thanks to the extra assistance his mother Sister-Hope Asmah gets from the MONIKU team in Espoo.
Established in 2017, it’s the first project of its kind in Finland, giving early childhood developmental help to babies whose parents don’t speak Finnish or Swedish as their first language.
MONIKU works in close partnership with other healthcare professionals to offer support, guidance and care for young children with immigrant backgrounds.
“With Neuvola, it’s more of a health check-up, and how the baby is growing and developing. First time at three months I came in and I had no idea, I thought babies start talking later in life, so why do we need this language service? Then they explained to me what the service is and some of the things you can do to help the baby develop his speech” Sister-Hope explains.
Linguistic development begins in the womb, when the baby hears speech and becomes sensitive to certain sounds, so at just a few months old it is already important for parents to support further language development before the baby starts to try and speak.
The work that Majeste and Sister-Hope do in the clinic provides the building blocks for learning several languages as the baby grows up.
“This service is meant for all multilingual families. The idea is that in Finland there’s a natural Finnish language environment, but sometimes if there’s another native language in the family then it might need more support, so as the child goes to Finnish daycare and school, the native language doesn’t fall down” explains Michelle Kaila, one of the Social Counselors at the MONIKU service – who herself is a mother, and an immigrant from Canada.
There’s not just language development on offer, with the counselors also giving advice on other kinds of services the family might need, like extra help with childcare or housing advice in different languages, home help services or Finnish courses for stay-at-home parents.
“These services are really important for families who don’t have families here in Finland. Usually when a mother gives birth and has the baby in their home country there will be the mother, grandmother, sisters, aunties who would maybe normally give the support” says Kaila.
Assessing the language needs of the family
When a new mother first gets in touch with MONIKU staff, they need to assess what sort of help could be useful – and to understand how language development might be encouraged in that family’s own culture perhaps through reading or songs.
Part of the information that staff discuss with mothers is how the child’s native language is the foundation for thinking and balanced emotional development – as well as being a tie to family, friends and culture.
Being bilingual or trilingual promotes problem solving and analytical skills, creativity, self-esteem and social skills as well according to experts.
“We ask questions to the mothers like are they worried the children learning the native language would affect their ability to learn Finnish” – a common concern – “how much do they speak the native language to the child during the day, and we discuss this” explains Social Counselor Michelle Kaila.
“Often when a child starts Finnish daycare they’ll come home and want to speak Finnish because they’re surrounded by this Finnish language all day, so we give advice on what to do then” says Kaila.
Learning more than one language
For parents with foreign backgrounds in Finland there can often be confusion or just a lack of understanding about which language is best to communicate with their baby.
Experts say mixing up the different languages doesn’t work, nor does trying to speak in Finnish if it’s not the parent’s first language. They have the right intention, to want their child to succeed in Finnish, but if they themselves only have a basic or mid-level understanding of the language it doesn’t do much to help their children.
There are however some strategies which work really well and the staff at MONIKU discuss those different methods with new mums.
“We emphasise a lot the importance of speaking the native language” says Michelle Kaila.
“For example, when the child has a strong native language on top of that the other languages can be learned, can be built. So if the family speaks Russian and the child has a strong native language system built, then when they go to daycare they can more easily learn Finnish”
Having a strong native language not only helps the children pick up Finnish more quickly, but then also acts as a tool for integration with local Finnish-speaking children at daycare and throughout the education system.
It creates a stronger bond between parent and child as well.
“Maybe sometimes the parents don’t speak very much Finnish, and if the child isn’t being encouraged to speak the parent’s native language and their strongest language is Finnish, then the relationship changes because of the lack of language skills” says Kaila.
The work that MONIKU is doing with very young children hasn’t been measured yet in the long term, since the service is so new, but it is clear their outcomes can have a positive impact throughout the child’s life.
Communication from an early age
Sister-Hope has already been putting the work in with Majeste, and seeing results.
“I was just telling a friend about this service because my baby was responding to instructions very early, about six months, when I say stop or come he does those things”
And she’s also carefully choosing when to speak in English, when to speak in her own language, and now that Majeste has started daycare he will hear Finnish being spoken the whole time he’s there as well.
“Usually in our culture I have Fante as my native language, so I used to speak English with him and Fante at the same time but I was advised that it’s better that you separate those two so that the child will pick up so quickly. Everybody in Ghana speaks English but we have our own language also” the 28-year old explains.
“If you keep mixing up the languages, the child won’t really understand. So most of the time I speak English with my baby, and if it’s later in the evening I speak some Fante with him, to separate it.”
Far from her home country, and separated from the traditional support of her family, the Espoo services for foreign mothers have been a lifeline for Sister-Hope.
“I had no idea going to have a baby what services were available or not, but in English, someone who understands, someone who has been there it’s good. It’s been so easy for me, as a first time mum, I can proudly say that I’ve watched my baby grow.”