Smooth service also in English

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2020-08-24 14:48

The City of Espoo is responding to Espoo’s rapid internationalisation by improving its services in English. The staff’s readiness to serve customers in English is supported, among other things, by language training.

By 2030, one in four Espoo residents is expected to have a mother tongue other than Finnish or Swedish.

Immigrants speak dozens of languages, but many rely on English before learning Finnish or Swedish. For others, using services in English may be the natural choice during their stay in Espoo.

This is the starting point from which the City Council decided to make the use of English as a service language one of the goals of the city’s strategy, the Espoo Story.

“We set out to offer high-quality services to residents and clients not only in Finnish and Swedish but also in English,” says Project Manager Tero Lohimäki who is in charge of the city-wide English as a Service Language development project. The project will continue until the end of the ongoing City Council term, helping the city’s sectors and units to develop their services in English.

English makes integration easier

According to Lohimäki, foreigners who move to Espoo are usually looking for information on housing and services for families. They also need English-language information on recreational activities.

“Not only does the city offer some activities, but we also seek to proactively bring together customers’ need for leisure activities and the parties that offer such services.”

According to Lohimäki, services in English help speakers of foreign languages integrate faster. To safeguard its vitality and tax revenue in the coming years, the city needs to be an attractive destination for international university students, skilled workers and entrepreneurs.

Lohimäki points out that in Espoo, English is a service language, not an official language like Finnish and Swedish. For example, the city will as a rule continue to issue administrative documents and decisions in Finnish and/or Swedish.

“If the city is unable to draw up a decision in English, this will be announced at an early stage during the process, for example when an applicant is filling in an application form online.”

According to Lohimäki, another point to remember is the fact that not all immigrants who arrive in Espoo have a sufficient knowledge of English to use it to communicate with the city’s services. This is why the city for example publishes information about exceptional situations in several languages, not only in Finnish, Swedish and English.

“In some situations, the legal protection of the client may require that the city provide interpretation or translation into the client’s mother tongue. For example, the Social and Health Services sector sometimes needs interpreters.”

Texts in all languages should be easy to understand

The city already provides many services in English. It also employs translators into English in addition to those who translate into Swedish. For example, information about opening hours and exceptional situations is published in English, in addition to Finnish and Swedish.

The city also publishes an increasing number of news and press releases in English through various communication channels, such as social media.

In addition, key instructions, forms and filling-in instructions are being translated into English. Surveys for Espoo residents are conducted in English, too.

Many people look for English-language information about the city and its services on the city’s website, According to Lohimäki, it is vital that the information they need can be found quickly and is easy to understand.

“Simply translating a text that is written for a Finnish audience is often not enough. Information in English must be made understandable to people from different cultural backgrounds. The work of a translator will become much easier if the units of the city produce materials that are already easy to understand in Finnish and Swedish. Clear administrative language is important in all languages,” Lohimäki says.

Language training and new technology

In addition to the website, various customer service situations also need to be conducted in English. The key aim of the English as a Service Language project is to enhance the readiness of customer service staff to speak and write English.

“A survey conducted among the personnel suggests that they know English but sometimes lack the courage to use it.”

The entire city staff will not be expected to provide services in fluent English. Lohimäki would nonetheless like to encourage everyone to speak English with customers – there is no need to speak perfectly.

The employees’ readiness to serve customers in different languages will be improved with language training, for example. “The city’s units are currently investigating the need for language training for people with different duties. This is the right time to express your wishes and apply for training. The units can purchase training from Omnia,” Lohimäki says.

Lohimäki has also heard that the city staff have requested sector-specific glossaries where they could quickly find the most common professional terminology in English. “Rescue services for example has a list of customer service phrases.”

The city’s sectors and units may ask the city’s own Translation Services unit for help with translating professional glossaries and customer service phrases. Translation Services also maintains a termbase for City of Espoo employees. It contains vocabulary related to Espoo and the municipality’s operations.

New technologies are also being used more and more. The Customer Service and Employment Services units will test a mobile application for translation between Finnish and other languages later this year. The languages will most likely be Arabic and Russian, in addition to English. “Machine translation will not solve everything. However, it will let us gain experience, find out what solutions work and see if they could be implemented more widely for example in day care and schools.”

Education and Cultural Services invests in online communication

The city’s sectors and units are in charge of developing their own English-language services and allocating resources to them. According to Senior Planning Officer Annika Forstén, Education and Cultural Services has put a special emphasis on improving the availability of information online.

“We have allocated more resources to translation. We noticed that there was a need for translations of some online forms of early childhood education and the descriptions of the city’s sports and exercise facilities,” Forstén says.

Education and Cultural Services is also improving its websites to make the English-language version easy to navigate, enabling users to quickly find the information they need.

“For example, we have fixed sections where someone who was looking for information in English would run into a dead end on a page that was only available in Finnish.”

According to Forstén, translation and communications processes should be made smoother. The coronavirus epidemic has demonstrated the city’s ability to carry out emergency communications in multiple languages.

“We have done our groundwork well, which has helped. For years, key guidelines have been drawn up in various languages in the fields of education, early childhood education and libraries. However, we do not always have the resources to produce ‘lighter’ content in English.”

Forstén believes that in the future, the city will need to communicate through an increasing number of channels in multiple languages. “Education and Cultural Services already uses social media to communicate about topical matters in Finnish, Swedish and increasingly often in English. For example, the early childhood education chat service is available in three languages.”

Originally published in issue 2/2020 of Wieteri, the personnel magazine of the City of Espoo. Text: Matti Remes, illustrations: Seesa Lippo.