Level 1 – Start the conversation
If you’ve read the article Why become a language learning catalyst?, you’re hopefully already convinced that you can be a catalyst for shaping multilingual awareness and multilingual practices at your workplace. Or at least, you’re willing to give it a try because you’d just like to actually use your Finnish more and develop your language skills in and through your work.
Let’s get down to the details then, starting with the simple but vital step of starting conversations with your workmates about using Finnish at work.
Talking about speaking (and not speaking) Finnish can be a delicate matter. If you’ve been on this language-learning journey for some time, you’ll probably already know that it can be an emotional ride that connects deeply with one’s sense of belonging, professional competence, and identity.
So you might, for example, be holding back from asking a Finnish colleague to speak Finnish with you because you don’t want to bother them with your (in your opinion) slow speech and grammatical errors – when actually they would love to help you learn, and would themselves prefer to be speaking Finnish. On the other hand, they might also be holding back from asking if you’d like to speak Finnish because they don’t want to put you in an awkward position if you’d rather not – when actually you most definitely rather would!
Someone here needs to make the first move, or else it’s easy to end up in a situation like the one uncovered in a recent study of hospital employees: The native Finnish speakers at the hospital were ready to help the non-native workers and wanted them to be bolder in asking their language-related questions. The non-native speakers wanted this help, and wished that the native speakers would more often correct their language. Both wanted more talk about language – they just wanted the other one to take the initiative.
How, then, do you get that conversation going? Here are a few options:
Let’s start with the simplest one – just asking someone to speak Finnish with you. They might not even know that you are studying Finnish.
When asking this, it’s also good to think about what would be a natural, regular context for speaking Finnish together, such as when eating lunch, or when chatting together before a work meeting officially starts, or during some particular work routines that you regularly do together. Starting in this way means that you can both test out how it goes before then expanding Finnish use to more contexts.
By putting the question like this, your colleague knows that you’re not asking them to speak Finnish because you think their English is poor. Floating this option to your workmates can be a real win-win, because then each of you can be free to use the language you want to, even if the other is answering in a different one. It’s also hard to underestimate the importance of getting lots of listening practice in any language you are learning – and this is even more effective if it is ‘active’ listening that is part of real-life interaction, rather than the ‘passive’ listening of, for example, watching TV or listening to podcasts.
Sometimes the student gets to be the teacher: you can teach your colleagues how to speak Finnish in a way that is easier for Finnish learners to understand. As the old English joke goes, there are two types of English: Normal English and ENGLISH FOR FOREIGNERS! But just speaking more loudly is not the only way – and often not the best way – to make yourself more easily understood. Take a look at the next article in this series for some tips on how to train your workmates in the fine art of learner-sensitive speech.
As well as having colleagues with whom you can be regularly communicating in Finnish, it’s also a great idea to find those that are willing, and able, to answer your questions about what to say when, and why. In almost every workplace there are some ‘natural language teachers’ – people who enjoy explaining language and are able to do it clearly.
In addition to having people to whom you know you can throw a question in the middle of a conversation, you might also find someone who is up for getting together regularly, over lunch for example, to go through the list of questions you’ve accumulated over the last week or two. And the chances are that, in the process, they will learn some interesting things about their own native language!
This is a powerful way to boost your language learning. Without this kind of invitation, most people will just let your grammar errors or clumsy language pass as long as they nevertheless understand what you’re trying to say. By giving this invitation to the people you choose, you can also at the same time suggest what kind of feedback you would particularly like.
Is it problems with cases and declensions that you would like corrected? Do you want to expand your vocabulary? Are you concerned about using appropriate language when handling different situations with colleagues or customers? Do you want feedback on your speaking or writing, or both? You can also suggest how and when you would like to receive the feedback: In what situations is immediate feedback ok? Would you always like it face-to-face, or would messages and emails be ok as well?
If you get started with some of these question suggestions, you’ll most probably also come up with a few of your own. And while the focus of the questions offered has been on speaking Finnish together, the same variety of creative ‘language partnerships’ can be agreed for written communication as well. All the different messaging and discussion channels of digital working life offer great opportunities for language practice on-the-job.
It may seem that most of these conversations are mostly aimed at simply boosting your own Finnish learning and use – and therefore not particularly catalytic behaviour. But even at this first level, these one-to-one or one-to-few conversations can be having significant knock-one effects: Your Finnish-speaking colleagues may learn to speak clearer and consider helping others with their Finnish, and your English-speaking colleagues may get inspired by your example to also step up their use of Finnish at work.