Why become a language learning catalyst?
As you may remember from your old chemistry textbooks, catalysts speed up chemical reactions without themselves getting used up in the process. In the same way, your actions to boost your use of Finnish at work can have ‘catalytic’ effects that ultimately benefit everybody in your workplace.
What, then, is a ‘language catalyst’? It is someone who is taking action to boost their own on-the-job Finnish learning, help other Finnish learners do the same, and help their whole workplace reap the benefits of language awareness and multilingual work practices.
This may sound like quite a high calling, and maybe you’d rather just stick with the first bit – perhaps aiming for a weekly chat in Finnish over a cup of coffee with someone in your team. The good news is that all three parts of the catalytic calling seamlessly blend into one another. It can start with that cup of coffee – and then soon lead to opportunities to have an impact beyond just boosting your own Finnish skills.
Why, though, should you aim so high?
Language doesn’t live in textbooks and dictionaries; it lives in purposeful interactions between people. In your work there are things to be done, and language is learnt much better when used to do something that REALLY NEEDS to be done, rather than to complete a textbook exercise. Language courses are important, of course, but their primary purpose is to equip you for active language learning in the rest of your life – not to replace that challenging real-life learning with a safe and risk-free classroom bubble.
What’s more, it’s not just a matter of the QUALITY of learning at work, it’s also very much about QUANTITY. If, for example, you are working a full-time job and then squeezing in perhaps a couple of Finnish evening classes on the side, you are probably spending around eight to ten times as many hours at work as you are on your language course. Just by shifting a small fraction of your work time into Finnish, you could double your amount of learning and practice time.
The benefits are there for the taking – and you will most likely need to do the taking. If you are working in one of the increasing number of Finnish workplaces where English is the norm, your Finnish workmates may well be politely avoiding the topic, assuming that you either don’t know Finnish or don’t want to be using it at work.
A simple and effective idea can go a long way. You might start, for example, by agreeing with a couple of colleagues to always start your morning conversations in Finnish when you come into the office – just five minutes perhaps, as a way to start your workday in Finnish. Another colleague who is learning Finnish sees your example and gets inspired to try the same. Previously they thought that starting to use their Finnish at work would mean something like doing a whole presentation in Finnish, but now they realise that they can start small and simple.
This knock-on, catalytic effect of your actions is not just about giving people new ideas, it’s also about expectations and motivation. Your Finnish-learning colleagues may be assuming that no-one would have the patience for their fumbling attempts to speak Finnish, but then they see how happy your Finnish workmates are to speak a bit of Finnish with you each morning and help you practice. Their expectations change, and then they are willing to have a go as well. Or alternatively, perhaps they have got a bit demotivated with their Finnish learning, or they would rather take the easier option of just leaving Finnish for the Finnish lessons. Seeing your example could then give them the poke they need to take hold once again of the Finnish-practice opportunities that surround them every day.
Once other learners start getting in on the action, it’s often not long until the power of group action comes into play. If you’re all enjoying your separate morning conversations in Finnish, why not also fix up some regular times to practice Finnish all together, over lunch for example, or alternatively set aside a table in the break room as the ‘Finnish conversation table’? And why not also start conversations about bringing Finnish into work meetings as well, either in the informal moments before the meeting begins or during the official meeting itself? Such thoughts bring us nicely onto the third and furthest-reaching reason to become a language catalyst.
It isn’t just Finnish learners that benefit from all this. Becoming a more multilingual workplace can bring benefits to everyone. For those workmates who chat with you in Finnish each morning, for example, an immediate benefit is that they will be learning to support and interact more effectively in Finnish with people whose Finnish skills are still limited. As Finland becomes an increasingly multilingual society, this is a key skill for supporting immigrants' attempts to learn Finnish and thus the continuing vibrancy and centrality of the Finnish language.
Another concrete benefit for your workplace is the increased solidarity that comes from getting to take turns being the learner and the teacher/expert. You might be leading a team in English, for example, and acting as the expert in a lot of work matters, but then some of your team get to be the teacher when helping you with learning Finnish. Or you might be a native-English speaker who therefore has less challenges than some of your Finnish colleagues when handling complex work matters in English, but through their support for your Finnish learning you all get to feel that you understand better the challenges each of you face in using a second or additional language.
There are also many other benefits that accrue in more subtle ways as a workplace engages more with the opportunities and challenges of working more multilingually and the process of making clear, shared agreements in these areas. If this article has whetted your appetite for more, you will get to explore these in more detail later on. For now, it is enough to simply say that as employees becomes more conscious both of how language choice affects different aspects of work and of each other’s ideas and experiences of language learning, there is much potential for improving mutual understanding and communication and for tackling workplace tensions that can otherwise remain unresolved.