The Saami are Indigenous peoples living in the central and the northern regions of both Sweden and Norway, North Finland and the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia.1 The ten Saami languages spoken in these four countries belong to the Finno-Ugric languages. Their status is endangered because native speakers are few and often elderly, and it is apparent that the languages are not easily passed on to the next generations.2 In Finland, according to the national legislation and international human rights,3 the Saami are Indigenous people who enjoy constitutional protection and the right to linguistic and cultural self-governance. Three Saami languages are spoken in Finland: Northern, Inari and Skolt Saami. The definitely endangered Northern Saami is spoken in three countries: Finland, Norway and Sweden. It has less than 30,000 speakers. The seriously endangered Inari Saami, with 400–500 speakers, is spoken only in Finland. Skolt Saami is spoken in Finland and Russia, with about 300 speakers in Finland. Northern Saami has some official support and a reasonably stable position, at least in its core areas. Inari Saami is moving in a positive direction in the continuum of endangered Indigenous languages. The language community has managed, with active measures, to change the future prospects of the language from assimilation to revitalisation and survival.4

Before the current national states, the Saami lived and moved smoothly across the four countries mentioned above. Now, the Saami in these countries have different histories related to state borders, forms of states, rules, and educational policies and practices. In history, different phases of educational measures have been taken towards the Saami. From the 1600s to the 1970s, Saami people faced different forms of civilisation and nationalism ideologies, these had a range of impacts.5 During the period of missionaries in the 1600s and the 1700s, through the medium of Christianity, the church aimed to start the colonisation of the Saami according to the European ideologies of the reformation and the enlightenment.6 The second period was that of nationalism from the 1800s to 1960, which varied from country to country. In Norway, there was a separate written policy towards assimilation. In Sweden, a policy of segregation was put into place, as Saami-speaking reindeer herders attended nomad schools, while the other Saami attended municipality schools. In Russia, Stalinism caused totalitarianism, and many Saami-speaking teachers were sent to the camps and never returned to their villages and families. In Finland, the Finnish language and culture were emphasised, and minorities were not paid any special attention.7 From the late 1970s onwards, Saami was used in schools as an auxiliary language and in some cases, as the language of mediation. From 1990 onwards, the era of acceptance has made an impact on legislation and made the current revitalisation of Saami languages possible.8 It is evident that the ideological circumstances and assimilation measures that have continued until recent decades have gravely endangered the Saami languages and linguistic diversity.9

At present, about 100,000 Saami live in the four countries, of which approximately 10,000 live in Finland. Some of those in Finland reside in the most northern part of Finland, in areas legally defined as the Saami homeland: Utsjoki, Inari, Enontekiö and the northern parts of Sodankylä municipalities (Fig. 19.1).

Fig. 19.1
A map represents the Saami homeland. It includes the locations of Inari, Sodankyla, Enontekio, and Utsjoki, with municipality borders, and the Saami homeland is highlighted.

Map of the Saami Homeland in Northern Finland

According to the Basic Education Act 1988/1288, Saami-speaking students living in these areas have the right to receive most of their basic education in the Saami languages. However, 75% of Saami attending basic education schools already live outside the Saami homeland and are not covered by this act. Elsewhere in Finland, the municipalities can deliver two-hour supplementary Saami classes per week, with separate funding provided by the Ministry of Education.10 Only 10% of Saami children and young people living outside the Saami homeland attend these classes.11 This situation sets up specific demands on Saami language education.

The Saami Parliament, established in 1996, plays an important role in language revitalisation. It receives funding from the Finnish Government to support Saami culture, languages and education, and also prepares and delivers free learning materials. The Saami language revitalisation programme was launched in 2012. It emphasises the need for resources, the availability of Saami language education outside the Saami homeland and the development of pedagogical practices for endangered language teaching.12 In 2019, the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, nominated by the Council of Europe, stated that despite considerable allocation of resources for the promotion of the Saami culture and the revitalisation of the Saami languages, the development of language policy programmes was needed. The committee noted the limited impact of the measures because of the way they were enacted through short-term project funding (e.g., Saami language nests and distance education).13

The Ministry of Education and Culture established the Working Group for Developing the Teaching of and in Sámi Languages in 2020, with a special focus on early childhood education, language nests and Saami primary education.14 To provide background information for the task force, the Ministry published three reports, which underline the lack of learning materials or the need to update existing ones,15 the severe shortage of qualified Saami-speaking teachers and the urgent need for Saami teacher education.16 Additionally, there is limited information about the Saami in mainstream study materials, which creates an image of the Saami people as a group belonging to the past without their own history.17

One solution to help address Saami language education outside the Saami homeland is the Pilot Project on Distance Education in the Sámi Languages started in 2018, funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture.18 The project is managed by the municipality of Utsjoki and coordinated by the Sámi Parliament. It offers online supplementary Saami language classes for those children and young people living outside the Saami homeland. The long-term goal is to establish a permanent distance education system.

This chapter continues by describing the Finnish education system’s challenges in maintaining the Saami languages during the post-assimilationist era. Drawing on recent studies, it then turns to the discussion of parents’, teachers’ and local educational authorities’ views on and experiences in the Saami online language classes, how they are organised and what the future needs are. The chapter argues that while online language classes can be informed by studies of language learning and teaching in general,19 they need to be adapted to fit in the Saami context. The online language classes can be regarded as new pathways in Finland to provide social justice-based educational opportunities for all and make learning the heritage language that belongs to them possible for Saami children and young people outside the Saami homeland as well.

Maintaining and Revitalising Saami Languages During the Post-assimilationist Era

A native language is usually defined as the first language learned in childhood in a family that shares the same cultural and linguistic background.20 However, this definition is based on past colonial practices that aimed to destroy ethnolinguistic identity. Since the loss of language has been involuntary, it can be argued that the native languages are still the first languages of the Saami people, even though they may not be fluent in these languages or have only passive language skills.21 Common to multilingualism and human rights, this notion positions Saami language teaching and learning in a situation that differs from learning other languages. Despite the call for a more inclusive educational approach, the current practices do not always explain the curriculum-based and act-based understanding of Saami as native languages. The models from other Indigenous peoples worldwide should be searched. For example, after two centuries of colonisation and assimilation in Aotearoa New Zealand, the Māori language is being revitalised through a range of measures including Māori forms of schooling, Māori-medium units within regular state (public) schools and working towards a greater emphasis on Māori language and culture in those schools in general.22

Understanding heritage languages as resources and possibilities provides a basis for profitable strategies in the context of threatened languages.23 This means that all Saami children and young people have the right to be identified as native language speakers. It also means that specific language programmes and pedagogies are needed to address their diverse linguistic competencies. This demands resources and active language policies, with the aim of increasing the number of speakers and preventing language loss.

Learning Saami languages and, more broadly, building up culturally relevant school systems, are both societal and individual processes. At the societal level, schools need to be reformed by critically considering existing values, knowledge and ways of knowing.24 The curriculum and educational practices should be informed by culturally and linguistically diverse needs of students. For individuals, there should be low threshold systems to learn and take the languages back, as well as easy access to nationwide education programmes.

The Saami people often identify with Saami languages, but their first-language learning has been compromised for generations because of the assimilation processes related to the period of romantic nationalism and the construction of the idea of Finland.25 Communities recovering from historical trauma navigate in a world that still sometimes favours colonialism.26 This makes educational efforts important, as education deals with people, their attitudes and the measures to build a better world for future generations. Despite this, the skewed power relations and the lack of knowledge make the quality of education for the Saami people increasingly complicated. Marginalised people need to reconstruct their identities from oppressed and less valuable ones to those that think critically and observe the colonial practices from a counterforce perspective. Cultural continuity is one of the most prevailing motives for learning Saami languages.27 Community membership and one’s sense of identity also impact on motivation. Teachers creating Saami language learning environments therefore need to integrate general pedagogical knowledge of learning languages into complex and sensitive situations, often reflecting their own upbringing, traditional practices, language exposure and language learning experiences.28

Saami Language Online Classes Outside the Saami Homeland: Practices and Experiences

This chapter explores diverse perspectives of principals, parents and teachers on Saami online language classes for children living outside the Saami homeland. The data consist of two datasets. First, the Pilot Project on Distance Education in the Sámi Languages administered an online questionnaire in May 2019, mapping the views of 23 local educational authorities on Saami language online classes as extracurricular activities in their respective municipalities. Subsequently, in April–May 2020, the Academy of Finland-funded research project, Socially innovative interventions to foster young children’s inclusion and agency in society through voice and story, conducted online interviews with 6–7-year-old children’s parents (N = 9) and teachers (N = 5). The parents were interviewed individually using a thematic approach. The teachers’ interviews followed the stimulated recall method, where each teacher recorded an online class, and shortly after, the researcher and the teacher watched the recording together, recalling the ideas, feelings and pedagogical choices made during the class.29 The teachers had different educational backgrounds; some had several teaching qualifications, while others lacked any formal qualifications. This reflects recent information about the state of Saami language education in Finland.30 All data were collected and transcribed in Finnish, and the data extracts in this chapter have been translated into English by the authors.

The data from the principals formed a baseline audit of current practices. The interview data were analysed by using the theoretical guiding principles for facilitating and enhancing young children’s voices. This framework consists of eight principles: defining, inclusion, empowerment, listening, structure, process, approach and purposeful.31 They can be considered action points—provisional, open to change and phrased in the form of reflective questions that arose from the data collection. This eight-perspective frame fitted well with describing and explaining the complex conditions of the Saami online language classes. In this chapter, the frame is used to hear the voices of educational authorities, parents and teachers, explored from the points of structure, process and inclusion. The ‘structure’ and ‘process’ indicate how the classes were organised and identifies needs for further development. The ‘inclusion’ describes participation from inclusion and exclusion perspectives.

An ethical review was conducted before any data-gathering through interviews. This followed the guidelines of the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity and the European Union General Data Protection Regulation. Additionally, ethical guidelines for Indigenous research were directed to safeguard the identity of the informants and to justify the study in the Saami community.32 Prerequisites were that the participants should feel that they were greeted with respect, reciprocity and a relational manner and that the data were handled securely.33 To safeguard the anonymity of the informants, the data extracts have no identifying information.

Structure and Process: Current Practices and Future Prospects

Practical Arrangements

In basic education, the role of Saami language classes outside the Saami homeland is defined as an extracurricular activity. This brings forth many issues; for instance, the classes are organised in a variety of ways depending on the local authorities, who are responsible for the practicalities in schools. The Saami language distance education project organises and coordinates the teaching. Parents were generally pleased that the project had solved many problems that they had previously had to sort out by themselves. According to one parent, a child’s participation in online classes had been effortless:

I thought it was great that we received a notice from the school that the child would have the opportunity to participate in Saami language online classes. The project took care of the practicalities with the school, and the parents didn’t have to interfere with it in any way, nicely organised from our site.

Students from all over Finland participate in the online classes, and teaching is occasionally organised at homes because of timetabling and other practicalities. According to the legislation, the classes should be part of regular school days, but there are exceptions. Sometimes, children participated in the classes at home under the supervision of a parent or parents:

Supervision of the classes at home was decided because the Saami lesson was held late in the afternoon, and no activity or supervision could be arranged [in school] for the child while waiting. So, we decided that our child would participate at home. (Parent)

Saami language classes do not always fit in with other schoolwork, which is one of the key constraints. Schools often prefer that children participate in classes at home under parental supervision, as it is easier and more cost-effective. In those cases, the school does not have to provide facilities or a supervisor. Sometimes, the children themselves wished to participate in the classes at home: “… it was immediately clear to [the children] that they did not want to stay there after school” (parent). However, one parent stated that it was easier for the child to concentrate in school. Some parents said that at home, it was sometimes hard to find a place to study without distraction.

School assistants played an important role, especially in the learning context of small children. Assistants were supposed to help children with technology and study-related matters but were not always available, as required:

In the beginning, the children were in school a few times, left alone in the classroom. And I don’t think it was a good idea to leave the children alone, but yes, the adult assistant should be there all the time. (Parent)

Moreover, the assistants’ role differed from school to school, as noted by a parent with many children attending the online classes:

Although the assistant might have knowledge of the lesson in advance and could take an active role, it varies how this role is fulfilled. Some of the assistants think it’s only about control and security, and then others have taken for granted [that their role is] to really help and guide the child during the lesson. (Parent)

In some cases, the assistants understood that they could support the children in many ways, not only with technology, but also by encouraging them. “You are okay; you can say those words” (parent). However, one of the teachers had a grade one student who did not want to speak into the microphone; this is a usual part of the process of learning a new or passive language.34 The school assistant’s surprising reaction was that the child did not benefit from the classes and should therefore not participate. To overcome this challenge, the teacher explained how she came up with many alternative ways to communicate with the child who also could not write yet. For example, while learning colours, the teacher asked the child to show an object of a certain colour. The situation illustrated the importance of cooperation between school assistants and distance learning teachers.

Schools can support the voice and agency of Saami speakers in many ways.35 The online classes are held in settings where the mainstream language dominates.36 Sometimes, Saami is not spoken at home, so the online classes remain the only venue where the language is used. It is natural that it will take some time before children start using Saami, which had been in a subordinate position in the past. Furthermore, the society’s attitudes do not support the identity of the young learners, and Saami is not heard in the community. To one parent, the school assistant played a highly significant role: “I thought that you certainly wouldn’t get better in the beginning of that [without] a certain adult who’s really interested in it”.

In the cases where the children attended the online classes at home, their parents took the role of assistant, but this required each parent’s timetable to be adjusted according to the class schedule. According to one parent, acting as an assistant would not have been possible had she not been working from home.

Pedagogical Practices

Regarding pedagogical practices, parents typically expressed satisfaction with Saami classes:

I have at least noticed the playfulness and the fact that it somehow utilises the methods and practices that children are used to in everyday life. The teacher uses a lot of different games and videos on the Internet. Kids don’t feel lessons to be so “paper based”.

The teachers tried to create ways in which the teaching was based on the children’s motivation. “That’s probably correct that participation possibly comes true through child-centeredness” (teacher). In the beginning of their studies, the children acted as passive Saami language learners. Therefore, the classes started with the children exploring familiar things and building up their motivation:

In my opinion, it is good that there are, for example, familiar words, like if you know some berries and trees and seedlings already, so we talk about those in Saami. [Starting from the] self-evident words, taken from their daily life. It is good to learn some basic words first; this is a pedagogical principle.

This kind of approach demanded that the teachers knew the children’s living conditions and surroundings. One teacher stated the importance of group work during the classes. “I had been advised that one should practise group work during the online classes”. This is important because children participate in the classes are all over Finland and do not know one another in advance. The teachers were aware that the students in cooperative learning groups benefitted more than those in groups without cooperative aspect.37 One teacher also mentioned that the joy of learning was an important value:

All these kinds of arrangements that bring a sense of safety may help children to use the Saami language. I asked the children to bring a toy to school. We discussed their toys in Saami so they could use the language in a situation that was joyful and familiar to them.

Another teacher asked the children to bring their teddy bears to school, with the aim of practising language in a relaxing way:

Teddy bears that they love may help create a trusting environment, and maybe, they start to trust me as well. But through these kinds of practices, we can learn new things. For example, once we got to talking about whether these teddy bears would travel to the North of Finland, and the children became really eager to contribute.

The teachers also used a variety of ways to make the classes meaningful and culturally and linguistically responsive.38 For example, they used elders as language masters to motivate and support the children:

The language master has brought many nice, culturally appropriate words and the sense of communality and participation, which is so nice. And then, that certainly makes children participate. (Teacher)

Future Prospects

The teachers stated that the available learning materials did not always meet the online language classes’ needs. Sometimes, it was challenging to organise the classes without any materials and to cope pedagogically in such a situation. “It is not easy work when you sometimes have to create learning materials from scratch” (teacher). The production of teaching materials in the Saami language had been systematically developed and updated, and a lot of new materials had been produced, also in digital forms.39 The availability of learning materials had progressed in recent decades, but there were still some shortfalls. The teachers tried to find solutions and were aware of the rich traditional knowledge and storytelling tradition, which they used in their classes. Through the stories, the Saami values and cultural traditions were mediated to children in diverse ways.

The teachers also wished for pedagogical models to cater to children’s diverse skills and needs in Saami languages. They were uncertain about how much Saami language should be included. They needed information about the challenges posed by multilingualism and the diverse linguistic backgrounds of the children. One teacher expressed the hope that the amount of Saami language used online could be increased. “Perhaps Saami could then be used even more in the beginning of the lesson.” For others, having the competency to evaluate the children’s language proficiency was a concern. If their proficiency was not clear, it made it difficult to set suitable homework between classes. “I don’t know the level of [proficiency of] those kids” (teacher).

Inclusion: Participating in Saami Language Distance Education

Inclusion is a leading principle in Finland’s current school system, including Saami as Indigenous people. Quality Indigenous education is well-resourced, culturally sensitive and aligned with students’ learning needs, languages, priorities and aspirations. It should also be delivered through culturally appropriate pedagogy.40 Inclusion concerning Saami children has two faces. On one hand, they attend the schools under the Finnish basic education system on an equal basis with other children. On the other hand, they also have the right to attend their heritage language classes to increase their sense of belonging to the Saami culture and reach their full potential in both Saami and Finnish communities.41

To frame the Saami language teaching context, it is meaningful to provide insights about the inclusion perspective, the motivation for participating in online classes as an extracurricular activity and how inclusion or exclusion is expressed from the different actors’ viewpoints.

Many Saami children live in a reality where they start actively learning their heritage languages in the online classes. For many children, language learning was a new and interesting thing, and they had high motivation:

It is the child’s own interest, and it is then very important that the cousins are talking completely in Saami, and I have realised that my child wants to communicate with them more and more in Saami. Sure, the cousins can speak Finnish, but my child has the strong will to learn [Saami] and be connected. (Parent)

This kind of learning motivation strongly connected language learning with the cultural heritage and provided a good starting point to learn. This notion is in line with previous research showing that children express integrative and continuity motivations and the desire to belong by learning the Saami language.42 One parent pointed out that studying the Saami language was important, and the children were very interested in the Saami language and culture and other northern matters:

However, the Saami culture has always been present in our family. The child has been so terribly interested in Saami since childhood. When our child gets there, in Northern Finland, it is as if she has been there since she was little, and she would never leave. “A child of northern nature”, so to speak. (Parent)

Outmigration and urbanisation have broadened the diasporic context of Saami, and currently, a large number of Saami people live in urban areas throughout all Scandinavian countries. The online classes also provide a link to the Saami community for parents, not only for children. This was evident in the motives that were related to the assimilation and colonisation of the Saami in the past, which still had an impact on families.

Unfortunately, my mother belonged to the generation that was supposed to become Finnish, so she did not speak Saami, and she was then placed in these Finnish-language schools. Unfortunately, the Saami language did not continue for us then. (Parent)

The history had made speaking the Saami language a scarce phenomenon and led to the loss of the language. Before the 1980s, education in the Saami language or Saami language education was rare in Finland. As a result, there had been an extensive, involuntary language exchange.43 Many parents wished that their children would learn Saami, even if they or their parents did not have that opportunity. Some had studied Saami as adults, and this had been followed by the children’s participation in Saami language teaching:

In fact, now, I have studied the Saami language at the university for a couple of years. When I heard about this pilot project, that children could study Saami, we took the opportunity. We experience our family background as a richness, so we would like to maintain it in every way, so that the children in a way learn also about their own roots. (Parent)

Changes in society have produced positive consequences and language attitudes. Language revitalisation is ongoing as a result of developments in the language community, enabling the Saami languages to have fresh growth.44

Saami language teaching is supplementary education for children, who receive a separate certificate for participating in it. According to some parents, the fact that Saami classes are held either early in the morning or late in the afternoon as an extension of the school day, threatens motivation and calls for a commitment:

Children are very positive about this language learning. They like it and don’t feel forced to participate. But it decreases their motivation when there are practically more lessons [for them] than for those classmates who don’t have to stay after school. (Parent)

Yes, it requires commitment. For example, children can’t leave school with a friend at the same time, but they must go to a Saami language class, which is often a bit boring. (Parent)

Questionnaire feedback from educational authorities showed that Saami language education was regarded as important but not really touching their localities. Responses such as “Our municipality is Finnish language” and “Nice thing, but not really touching us” placed Saami children in the margins and justified the exclusion of Saami language education. The educational authorities may have often not had any previous experiences related to Saami education, and this produced diverse attitudes towards organising the online classes just for a few children. It challenged the right of Saami children to learn their heritage languages. This happened even though, based on the spirit of the constitution and international rights,45 children should have had the right to it. The feedback revealed a lack of act-based and economic support for Saami language education outside the Saami homeland.

The online classes received the most criticism for having a complex funding model, being weighed down by bureaucracy and incurring substantial costs. According to one authority, arranging teaching for just one or two students was too expensive:

This is laborious and expensive for the school, although the idea is great and worthwhile. The cost comes from arranging the teaching (we also had to get equipment for this), and in practice, when it concerns one student, it is quite disproportionately resource intensive. I am sorry to say this, but it is a reality because the school’s budget is tight.

In this example, the attitude was inclusive, but the practices were not in line with it. This highlights the importance of continuous discussion on Saami education at the national level. The funding should not be a problem because municipalities have purchased the Saami language distance education programme from Utsjoki municipality, a leader of the distance education project, at a cost of €1000 per student. The Saami Parliament supplies the learning materials for free. Additionally, the municipalities can apply for state funding to partially cover costs.46 From 2021, the schools’ share of the cost of offering online classes is about €100 per student because the Ministry of Education and Culture provides funding for online teachers’ monthly salaries.

The prevailing attitudes from schools affected parents, as they faced these attitudes when asking for Saami language teaching for their children. One parent indicated that finally, the family decided to organise teaching at home because their child’s school had announced that teaching was too expensive since it needed to hire a school assistant for the lessons. At home, a parent could act as an assistant during the lessons. It became easier and less distressing to just give up on school provision:

We received a message from the school that they weren’t terribly happy with this Saami language online classes, and we were told how much this would cost the school. So then, I clearly stated that I may not want to listen to such messages the whole semester. I decided to organise teaching at home, so there is no need to get this kind of communication from the school.

The root cause of these kinds of challenges might be that the educational authorities in Finland outside the Sami homeland do not always recognise the specific status of Saami languages as heritage languages and the importance of stopping the colonial processes.

Conclusion: The Need for Future Measures for Saami Language Education in Finland

This chapter has discussed Saami language challenges and future prospects based on the Pilot project in distance education in the Sámi languages and ADVOST reseach project, highlighting many unresolved issues. Based on the analysis frame applied,47 this chapter provides a window to current practices and how they might offer more inclusive experiences for children, families and also for educational authorities.

The Basic Education Act supports teaching the Saami languages in the Saami homeland, but Saami teaching outside the homeland varies because of the lack of any legal obligations. The situation is threatening for Saami languages, and there is a significant risk of further assimilation. This present research indicates that school personnel sometimes lack a positive attitude towards Saami language teaching. Saami language online classes demand facilities from the schools, such as computers, and someone to help the children during the lessons. Language teachers need more information about teaching endangered languages to children coming from diverse linguistic backgrounds. However, teachers are often able to engage the children in demanding learning without additional learning materials. This chapter concludes that Saami language online classes must be made permanent; otherwise, it will be difficult to offer Saami teaching throughout Finland due to the small number of pupils and limited teacher resources.

The global pandemic COVID-19 has not improved the situation. The pandemic has meant that most students have participated in the online classes at home. After the 2020 spring school closures, it seems that principals have increasingly hoped that students would participate from home. There has been a concern that the pandemic has ruined face-to-face classes already established in schools.

The overall picture is that despite many challenges and practical hindrances, children have a high motivation to attend Saami language classes. This is a benefit that should be taken advantage of in the further development of practices. For example, support for the language learning could be taken to the next level by putting more effort into pedagogy and content. Saami families and teachers need active support and an encouraging policy culture to help them maintain and develop their heritage languages.


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