Raising language awareness

Language is an essential tool for work, interaction and the sharing of information. Language is also often used to convey competence. Language may also exclude people from a community.

That is why language, language skills and related issues and attitudes are key to the objective of an inclusive workplace where all members feel part of the community and which makes full use of the competence of immigrants.


Language awareness and language-aware working practices help ensure that language skills are not an obstacle to making full use of an employee's skills and their participation in a multi-lingual work community.

Language awareness refers to consciously and actively paying attention and taking into consideration features related to language and vocabulary. A community with a language-aware culture will take into account the community’s linguistic diversity and recognize the importance of language to the following factors, among others:

  • interaction
  • learning and thinking
  • development of practices
  • integration into the community 

Dimensions of language awareness include:

  • taking different languages into account
  • flexibility in using different languages
  • awareness of attitudes towards linguistic communities
  • informing the entire work community of all the factors that language affects
  • aiming to adapt the language used to suit the situation (such as using plain language)

Language awareness can be apparent in everyday work life in a variety of aspects, such as the use of language, interaction between employees and habitual practices. Language-aware practices remove barriers to participation and understanding and enable people to work even when their language skills are still developing or when working in different languages.

A language-aware organization ensures that all employees have equal opportunities to progress in their work and participate in the activities of the workplace. Language skills should not be an obstacle to:

  • competence development
  • development at work
  • getting your voice heard
  • taking part in workplace development activities
  • integration with the work community and a sense of involvement
  • remuneration (it must be ensured that there are no biases in the remuneration system that favour those who speak the majority language)

Factors such as the sector the organization is in, the degree of internationalization and client and stakeholder groups influence the languages used and the kind of language skills required in various roles.  External factors, such as laws, can also guide the language proficiency requirements of certain roles. In some workplaces, the only working language may be English, but in government positions, for example, knowledge of national languages is, for the time being, a legal requirement. That is why language-aware practices may differ between organizations.

In all organizations language awareness requires an examination of practices from the perspective of the importance of language. It also requires commitment by the organization's management and the entire organization in order to create practices that dismantle barriers to participation.

Defining the language skills required for a task

Taking issues related to language and language skills into consideration begins with recruitment and determining the level of language skills required for a specific task.

Often, employers require jobseekers to be fairly fluent in Finnish or Swedish. However, there is a wide range of occupations and roles that can be carried out even when your language skills are still developing.

Making use of the competence of experts with an immigrant background will often require critically examining the requirements related to language skills for a specific role and making them more reasonable. It is essential that employers also provide the opportunity to work with developing language skills or in languages other than Finnish and Swedish.

There are jobs in which the requirement of Finnish or Swedish skills is based on the needs of the client group, such as when working with patients. The language proficiency requirements should be examined critically even when recruiting for these positions, and support should be provided for language learning at work. It is the employer's responsibility to make it sufficiently clear what level of language skills are required for any job that requires knowledge of a specific language.

Language-aware practices

The critical assessment of the level of language skills required for a job and language-aware work will often require changes in some of the workplace's practices. In practice, this can mean the simultaneous use of two or more languages. In Finland, the most common way to promote the use of the competence of experts from foreign backgrounds is by making it possible to work in English or in another language shared by the work community. Barriers to participation and understanding can also be removed with small and practical measures, such as translating key concepts into a language that everyone understands.

The members of the work community must commit to using a shared language in situations and communication that involve colleagues with developing language skills, including informal events such as lunch and coffee breaks. This requires that the organization has a policy in place regarding the use of language in different units and in various situations, including informal ones. It is also necessary to ensure that all personnel understand that these policies exist to ensure the inclusion of all employees and to promote a sense of community.

Language awareness involves considering the following factors, among others, from the perspective of language and comprehensibility:

  • linguistic accessibility of systems
  • accessibility of forms and practices used in development discussions
  • atmosphere and personnel surveys
  • practices regarding conversations
  • practices regarding meetings
  • accessibility of key documents (such as collective agreements and employment contracts)
  • matters and documentation related to occupational safety

Multilingual work in situations such as meetings, can mean:

  • presentation of the meeting agenda and speaking in English or some other shared language, in addition to Finnish or Swedish
  • summary of the contents of the meetings before the meeting and a debrief afterwards
  • focus on the clarity of the agenda and minutes

The importance of clarity in communication is emphasized in workplaces where the working language is Finnish or Swedish and employees are required to have knowledge of the national languages. You should support the development of language skills by encouraging the use of the language as much as possible and providing opportunities for learning. It is important that those who know the majority language adopt a positive attitude to poor or developing language skills.

There are many ways to support language learning and understanding at work. Such measures include:

  • The Työpaikkasuomi training offered by the Employment and Economic Development Offices
  • providing supervisors with basic training in plain language
  • translation of professional vocabulary
  • ensuring that language skills are not an obstacle to making use and expressing an expert’s competence
  • interpretation in some situations
  • a language mentor internal or external to the work community

We are used to hearing and understanding English spoken at a variety of ways and proficiency levels. It is also possible to speak Finnish and Swedish in many ways and still be understood. However, native speakers of Finnish or Swedish will often switch to English if they feel that the other party does not speak the language well. However, this will take away from the other person the opportunity to use the language and thus improve in using it. 

Language-aware communication

The objective of language-aware internal communication is to ensure that information related to the organization and the employees’ own work reaches them and is understandable to everyone. In practical terms, this can mean making internal communication available in more than one language or only in a language that everyone in the entire work community understands. Particular attention should be paid to the clarity and comprehensibility of all communication.

The language or languages in which the organization communicates externally will have an impact on who the communication reaches and how the organization appears to international experts. In addition to Finnish or Swedish, external communications and job advertisements in English, for example, communicate about valuing diversity and help to draw the attention of migrants to the country. The client base also determines the languages used. For example, making descriptions of services available in more than one language will allow reaching more people.

In addition to communication and interaction within the workplace, relations with potential clients should also be considered. Which languages can be used when working with clients? Just the same as employers, clients may also require fluent Finnish or Swedish language skills for tasks that do not require them. In such situations, it is advisable to suggest ways in which the work can be done, even if the expert works in English, for example.