Different mother tongues, same workplace
- City of Espoo
This article has originally been published in the Espressi Magazine in March 2023.
More and more workplaces have employees whose mother tongue is neither Finnish nor Swedish. Espoo considers multilingualism an asset and certainly nothing to be afraid of.
Working in many languages
When employees at a workplace speak ten different languages, it may happen from time to time that not everyone understands what the others are talking about. Sometimes these situations can lead to comical misunderstandings.
“We participated in an online training course held in Finnish, and my colleague misunderstood one word. Finally, the colleague asked the rest of us in a chat why our instructor was talking about cannibalism. I can’t remember what the original word was, but we were very amused and could not stop laughing,” recounts Grace Ondo, who works as a coordinator at Espoo Talent Hub.
The official working languages at Grace’s workplace are Finnish and English – and often a mix of the two. Grace herself speaks French as her mother tongue.
“I have colleagues who are native speakers of Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, English, Swedish and Ukrainian.”
Espoo Talent Hub, founded a couple of years ago, has three different teams, each working with multilingualism and multiculturalism in one way or another. One of the tasks of Espoo Talent Hub is to match highly educated immigrants with Espoo-based employers, so a multilingual and multicultural background is very helpful.
“We have some thirty people working here, and we welcome all Espoo residents. We regularly organise events, such as breakfast events for highly educated immigrants, where we offer tips for job seeking,” says Trang Pham, who works in the same team as Grace.
Each language enriches the workplace
Both Trang and Grace agree that a multilingual work community gives more than it takes.
“We speak different languages, but we also come from different backgrounds. Each person introduces their own working methods to the team, which can be a great asset. We support each other and can learn a lot from each other. This kind of work community is very inspiring and interesting,” Trang says.
Grace points out that, according to several studies, a well-managed, multicultural and multilingual team is on average more productive than a monocultural team.
“If you want to grow your business, you should invest in a team like this. Of course, it will require good leadership; otherwise you may end up with an opposite outcome,” she says.
They both agree that a multicultural work community is an asset in itself.
“Many fields are experiencing a shortage of labour, and we do not have enough Finnish workers to fill all positions. Especially the public sector should bear in mind that it is important to provide services for taxpayers in languages that they understand,” Grace continues.
A company aspiring to conquer the international market benefits greatly from a multilingual work community.
“A diverse team helps when the company wants to expand its operations abroad. When the team has professionals from other countries, they already have knowledge and an understanding of the situation in their country of origin,” Trang points out.
Working in a foreign language is stressful
Even though multilingualism can be a huge resource for a work community, it does pose some challenges. Grace and Trang point out that speaking a foreign language can be quite draining as it requires a lot of thinking.
“When you work as a specialist and always have to strain to understand, the work can feel stressful. Even if people understand plain Finnish, you cannot expect the Finnish speakers to take on the role of language teachers,” Grace says.
“They may have to practise speaking plain Finnish at a slow pace,” Trang adds.
According to Grace and Trang, workplaces should have clear rules for which languages are used in different situations. At Espoo Talent Hub, people flexibly switch between Finnish and English depending on the situation.
Language helps people adapt to new environments
Switching from Finnish to English is however not a viable solution in all situations and workplaces. Kannusali, located in Espoon keskus, produces cultural experiences ranging from music clubs to performing arts and cinema events. The staff includes ten people, from sound technicians to cultural producers.
Finnish is the team’s working language, although it is not everyone’s mother tongue.
“The work does not require a fluent knowledge of Finnish. But because we speak Finnish, even those who do not speak the language well will learn it by working with us. Many people may have lived in Finland for years without having learned our language because Finns have always spoken English to them,” says Simppu Silaste, who works as an executive producer at Kannusali.
Simppu has years of experience working in a multilingual environment alongside people with whom he initially does not share a common language.
“Admittedly, it would often be easier to switch to English. But we take pride in helping professionals who have moved to Finland learn the language.
Multilingualism can help people relate to each other
According to Simppu, a multilingual workplace is also an advantage because Kannusali is located in an area where as many as 40 per cent of the residents speak a language other than Finnish or Swedish as their mother tongue.
“I believe that customers will find it easier to visit us if they can identify with the staff,” Simppu says.
Andrés Soromaa, who has been working as a production organiser at Kannusali for three months now, is a good example of this. Chilean-Finnish Andrés used to work in the field of stage technology in Chile. He moved to Finland because he wanted to improve his language skills. However, this wasn’t easy.
“I have only started to learn Finnish properly after I moved here. I was spoken Finnish to as a child, but I have almost completely forgotten the language. Now that all my co-workers speak Finnish, I am learning the language at work,” he says.
Especially at first, the lack of a common language was annoying.
“Not being understood can be frustrating,” Andrés says.
“However, in three months, Andrés has learned a great deal,” Simppu says encouragingly.
Andrés works at Kannusali as an apprentice, and the training lasts for two years.
“We often have short-term traineeships available. The idea is to encourage and at the same time train employees so that they can find employment in Finland,” Simppu says.
Language skills should not be a key issue
Simppu, Trang and Grace point out that workplaces should not put too much weight on the language skills of employees.
“You should feel safe speaking at your workplace, whatever language you use. Language should not be made into a big deal,” Grace says.
Trang points out that a lot of understanding is required of management, especially during the orientation phase.
“It is important that new employees get to read documents in a language that they really understand,” she says.
Languages and cultures
The employees of Espoo Talent Hub and Kannusali say that they were surprised at how highly the Finnish language is valued by employers.
“We get a lot of highly skilled people, who cannot find a job because they do not speak perfect Finnish. Even though there are many jobs that do not require a fluent knowledge of Finnish,” Grace says.
“In addition, many employers seem to hesitate hiring their first foreign-language employee. We can provide help in these situations,“ Trang adds.
Simppu says that at many workplaces people end up speaking English just because it’s easier.
“There is no good reason to speak bad English if the alternative is to really learn the Finnish language, which will help the person integrate into Finnish society and improve their employment opportunities,” he says.
In a multilingual workplace, people can also get to know each other’s cultures. To celebrate public holidays, Espoo Talent Hub employees bring foods typical to their home countries to the workplace.
“We have eaten American pumpkin pie, French cake and Finnish Christmas foods. The French cake Grace brought to work caused quite a spectacle because cutting it involved such strange rules. The person who found a figurine inside the cake got to wear a crown, and I, as the youngest, had to cut the cake under the table,” Trang laughs.
The City of Espoo supports its employees by organising free Finnish language training. The emphasis of training varies according to the needs of the employees. Employees can focus on improving their conversational Finnish, keeping their language skills active or practising their writing and listening comprehension skills.
- Work for Espoo