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The many languages of working life

| By Björn Lindahl, Editor-in-chief

In this edition, we look at work from several different points of view. But in reality, it all comes down to the same thing. Work gives us an identity and experiences we would not have otherwise. That is why we are vulnerable when our professional roles are under attack. Or if we never get the chance to work.

The Nordic Council of Ministers’ Work Environment Committee has launched an initiative to make work environment knowledge part of the secondary school curriculum. There is great interest in this among vocational students. They have already learned a great deal about ergonomics, lifting techniques and sitting positions. The subject is more remote for those who prepare for university.  

By linking education material to the school environment – like the danger of too much passive screen-time – the Swedish Agency for Work Environment Expertise hopes to make the subject relevant for students. As one female student says: “You are still, like, young, so you don’t want to ruin your body already.” 

Mehmet from Turkey has been teaching science to young people for 24 years. Now he and his wife are political refugees in Sweden and have been given the chance to participate in the Intensive Year. This is a new initiative aimed at linking internships with language training, giving participants a relevant job within one year. 

The Swedish language is key for the duration of the Intensive Year. But English training can be relevant too. A published and experienced researcher with no English skills might struggle to find a job in Sweden, where most scientific texts are written in that language. 

Most debates about language and work are centred on the need to learn the main spoken language. The challenge for Finnish-speaking Maria Karjalainen from Rovaniemi in the north of Finland was to learn Swedish. A job in Åland through Nordjobb gave her the opportunity to practice her Swedish in everyday life for the first time. It made her feel safe speaking the language, which she had studied in school but still felt uncomfortable using. All this came in handy when she became an exchange student at Stockholm University the year after.

The language issue is different again for people with hearing difficulties. A deaf person often works in places where there are no other deaf people. That means their sign language can get lost. The Norwegian Signo foundation is the country’s largest employer of deaf people. 

Hege Farnes Hildrum is their Secretary-General. With so many deaf people in the workplace, you get an unusually rich language environment, she points out. After many years of fighting, Norwegian sign language is now recognised as a national language alongside bokmål, nynorsk, the different Sami languages, kvensk and romanes.

It is still too early to conclude what this new status will mean, but it might prepare deaf people better for working life, hopes Hege Farnes Hildrum.

But what happens when communication collapses or when language is used for bullying and harassment? In their new book, Norwegian researchers Bitten Nordrik and Teresa Østbø Kuldova point to a development where workplace conflicts are increasingly described in militaristic terms.

“Nonconformist behaviour in the workplace is increasingly understood as a breach of the law, and investigated using methods inspired by the police," they write and warn against what is called workplace investigations. External lawyers and psychologists are hired to allow employers to draw a line under workplace grievances. Rather than talking about the reasons behind the conflicts and finding solutions involving all the parties, the accused end up in Kafkaesque interrogations with no legal protection.

We all need someone who dares to take the fight to the big guns. Read Marie Preisler's portrait of  EU Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, who has fought some of the world’s largest companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google. 


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