Bringing your language to work

Does language-love exclude us at work?
Does language-love exclude us at work?

Last week I attended a conference on workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I). D&I practioners repeat the mantra that people are happiest and most productive when they can bring their “whole selves” to work. The concept of bringing the whole self implies that there is no part of one’s self that one has to leave at the door when they come to work. Most of the discussion of “whole selves” revolved around race, gender, and sexual orientation, namely, one can be at work according to one’s race, gender, and sexual orientation, without shame, without hiding. We also discussed the topic of religion. D&I experts show that when people can bring their whole selves to work, they are happier and more productive, which hits the business’s bottom line in a positive way.

I noticed, however, that no one touched on a significant topic: linguistic inclusion. If people identify strongly with a language besides English, are they allowed to bring their whole self to work? I was amazed that the conference never addressed the issue of language even when the opportunity arose. I naturally put on my “loving language” hat and started asking around. I saw the problem clearly, but I’m still looking for an answer.

Language discrimination

This is a real issue. I met one man at the conference from Somalia who related to me about one place he worked. A monolingual English-speaking colleague of his said, “I don’t like Filipinos because they are always speaking their own language,” and added, “The same thing for Somalis.” Not only can one not bring one’s language to work, open disgust towards other languages is allowed.

Another woman I met works in health care. She said that in one hospital, Spanish-language interpreters are only allowed to speak Spanish on the job; during break they are told not to speak Spanish. Even those hired to speak another language are not allowed to bring their whole selves to work.

These are extreme cases, but I don’t know if they’re rare. In the US people can actively keep others from bringing their whole selves to work when those people identify with a language besides English. I don’t know if this is illegal; those discriminated against are often vulnerable immigrants and wouldn’t bring lawsuits.

In the vast majority of workplaces in the US, the only language spoken at work is English. Whether your native language is English or not, whether you speak English well or not, you will speak English at work and leave your other language(s) behind.

This means that if the whole self includes identification with a language besides or in addition to English, you cannot bring your whole self to work. Many workplaces do not accommodate other languages being spoken.

How will we communicate with each other, then?

Another gentleman responded to my questions by correctly asserting that people need a way to communicate at work. If everyone is speaking another language, it is neither fair nor reasonable to expect everyone to learn everyone else’s language. People do not need a single language for mutual communication, however. Hegemony of one language is not the only answer. Throughout human history, people mix languages and develop means of communication using multiple languages. For example, Singapore and India employ these multi-lingual means of communication today. A subset of a couple languages or a mix of languages have also been shown to function fine.

The problem only raises questions for me now; I don’t have an answer. Can we allow for a multiplicity of languages without turning into a Tower of Babel? Can we shift culture through force of will, or do we need to keep the system as it is? Our present culture shows that integration of gender and race and, more recently, sexual orientation, can work, though not without tension. How do we continue this trend to language? Or will it remain a tense subject, unspoken of in the workplace, like religion?

Do you see linguistic discrimination at your work? Is it justified in your workplace?

Photo credit: ROSS HONG KONG / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

16 thoughts on “Bringing your language to work

  1. Rebekah Polanchak

    Hi there,
    I work at the State of California’s Department of Transportation. There we have many Persian, Vietnamese as well as a few Chinese,Korean, Tawainese, Filipino, Jewish, Palestinian, Arabic, Lebanese, Indian, Sri Lankan, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Mexican, Chilean, Peruvian, Colombian, Bolivian, Bangledeshian, Romanian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Kuwait, etc. We have quite a diverse workforce as you can see from all the countries represented. We permit people to speak in their native tongues on their breaks and lunchtime. But to conduct business everything is done in English. My grandparents came from Eastern Europe at the turn on the Century around 1910. They learned to speak English in their new land. They also encouraged their children to speak English at school and even at home. I am second generation born here in America. Sometimes I would like to have been able to speak both English and the languages of my grandparents. I learned a little from my parents and through singing at my Church campmeetings, but not nearly enough. I do agree though that you have to communicate in one language to do business or else have an interpretation for everyone at the meeting. Sometimes when you hear people talking in their foreign language at work it makes one feel left out of the conversation if they do not know what you are saying. So everyone needs to show respect on both sides. The native born speakers of English in America as well as those who speak English as a second language. As long as there is mutual respect from all I see no problem speaking different languages at work. But to conduct business stick with the primary language of the country where you live. That’s my opinion.


    1. Thank you so much for your comment. You really speak from the point where the rubber hits the road.

      I think that you have a community at work that has tons to teach. I’m jealous! What are ways that you can highlight the knowledge that already exists at work so that everyone can learn something new. Your colleagues could be the most cosmopolitan people around.

      You speak of feeling left out of conversations in non-English languages. What if you had lessons for those languages? For example, would the Persian speakers be willing to teach a little Farsi? Everyone could greet them in Farsi?

      In 1910, there was already an established policy to remove languages from public discourse in the US. But the US was unique in some ways. New York City was full of hundreds of languages, like India or Singapore. But societal policies put pressure on those who spoke languages than English.

      Now we worry when we enter into business or politics with people who speak languages besides English. Why do we worry about Arabic speakers in the government, when Michigan is full of ethnic Arabs? Because many of them forgot the Arabic that their parents and grandparents spoke. We have so many languages in our society, but they disappear.

      I think our country could be more flexible and robust if we all worked to know a little of the languages of our neighbors.

      I respect your position because you are in the midst of the practicalities in your job. But how does what I say strike you? Does it make sense in your context?


  2. No easy answers here!

    There are practical considerations in the work place – realities that may not be fair but are circumstances that can’t be ignored… right now we are hiring in Indonesia for a project. Language is critical – most of the project team (including on the client side not just a consultant folks) are not fluent in Bahasa… Content is all in English… the Training Skills for Trainers program will be conducted in English. Therefore the core pilot hires all need to be able to function in English?!

    Yet in India, I would hire trainers in part for their multilingual skills – in South India a trainer should be fluent in four languages – if they can’t effortless shift / have credibility with the folks their are training – just aren’t effective! I wasn’t so fussed if written English was strong as long as had basic communication skills in English to connect effectively with the national team as didn’t want anyone disadvantaged on that front either.

    Was anyone ever discouraged from speaking whatever language they wanted socially? Goodness no! Plurality in linguistic communication is the norm here!

    When I think back to life in Canada, was there ‘language discrimination’? Probably in some contexts – none that were obvious but as the dominant language is my mother tongue, I could have been oblivious. However I was guilty of using a ‘secret language’ of Hindi with my hubby to privately share an observation in an enviro where it was unlikely others would understand. No one ever told us to ‘hush!’ and speak English!

    What does this all mean? Will leave you to draw your own conclusions….


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  4. I’ve worked at the same place every summer, we work in a warehouse enviorment and refurbish computers. Theres always been some variety in the people who worked there! The business is owned by Arabs, and they often speak Arabic to each other, and two of the employees who know Arabic, but are Somali and thats what they tend to speak to each other. For awhile there was also quite a few Asian people, most of them were quite old and didn’t speak the best English, one of them was quite good and English and would often translate or help the rest if they didn’t understand something. Then there was the token Canadians who speak English but know some French. In the workplace I never did see or hear anyone ever telling anyone else to ‘not speak that language’. I’m guess the fact that our bosses not being monolingual was a large factor. This is in Canada of course, so it might be different down there.

    Our work enviroment did mean that you could bring your language into work if you wanted to, the programs we worked in to fix computers often let us pick a language before it launched. Someone brought in a chinese version of windows, and we helped get them into laptops for some of the guys who wanted it. Overall the people make the job a lot better then it would be without them.


  5. From 1998 to 2009 I worked at companies here in Australia where most of the employees were from overseas. It was quite normal to hear colleagues speaking to each other in, say, Russian or Persian, even though at the time I couldn’t speak any language other than English. This was actually one of the things that inspired me to start learning a foreign language myself 🙂 The only time I have personally heard negative comments being made about people speaking languages other than English was (incredibly!) at a German summer school here a few years ago.


  6. That’s how I feel surrounded by Indians at work and in my community, but I don’t speak any Indian languages. I’ll go out there and give it a go. I don’t want to regret losing an opportunity.


  7. Rachel

    My sister’s school, which is easily 50% international students (Chinese and Vietnamese mostly), has signs in the hallways which read “Please do not speak a language other than English in the school as its the only language we all understand.” One I found particularly ironic as it was pinned immediately above a sign which read “Parlez vous francais? Vouillez vous etudier en France?” A friend and I actually took that one down, since we thought it was beyond stupid.

    Everyone ignores these signs, of course, since if you get two or three Vietnamese students eating together who don’t speak English that well, of course they’re going to speak in Vietnamese. I’ve talked to a number of the students, and everyone agrees that it’s okay to ask the internationals to speak English in the classrooms, because that’s lesson time, but no-one has a problem with them speaking their own languages outside of lesson time and in the hallway. Still, I can’t help but feel annoyed and think there is some sort of discrimination happening when I read those signs.


    1. Thanks, Rachel, for your comment. This is the reason I wrote the post. How crazy is it for the people in power to say, “Don’t speak in a way we can’t understand!” to the people who can speak otherwise? Of course, maybe it’s not crazy, but normal 🙂

      The other solution, which no one seems to mention, is for everyone to learn the second (or third) language. Why won’t they teach Chinese to every Australian kid? Why won’t they teach Spanish to every American kid? Everyone in Canada has to learn French and English, everyone in Finland learns Finnish and Swedish, everyone in Ukraine learns Ukrainian and Russian (though that might not last much longer).

      With a changed attitude, more people could learn languages, rather than try to stomp out languages. People say it takes too much work to learn a second language. Does it take less to force others to stop speaking their first?


      1. Rachel

        Actually, that’s something that’s been coming up a lot recently in discussions with friends and family. The problem is, unlike many other countries, there’s no obviously language for everyone to learn. It’s not like Canada, where everyone learns French or English, or America, where Spanish is a pretty obvious answer to the school’s language of choice and pretty universal. It’s not even like New Zealand, where there’s a single indigenous language to choose for everyone to learn.

        Basically, I think, there are four criteria for the language a school here chooses: (1) the heritage language of the area, which, in South Australia, is usually German or Italian, (2) the traditionally-taught languages, which is usually French but may include Latin or German, (3) a language of potential economic benefit, which is why the government and education department are pushing Mandarin, Japanese and Korean so hard, and (4) the language of our closest neighbour, which is Indonesian. And then there are the schools who go against the grain of those seven “common” languages, and teach Russian, or Greek, or Arabic, or Narungga (, or basically whatever language they can find a teacher for… You can get five little kids the same age together and find five different second languages. Option (5), the indigenous language, is taught in some places (mostly central desert/Northern Territory), but is unviable for a couple of reasons. One is that, unlike New Zealand, we never had a single, unified indigenous language. I grew up in Kaurna country, even learnt a few Kaurna words, but now I live half an hour away in Peramangk country (actually, there are no records of Peramangk and we have no idea what it was like, other than it must have been a little like the surrounding languages). The other reason is that the living languages, the ones we have records for and know enough about to teach, are all in places with lower population, and where a lot of the kids are likely to already speak that language. And Aboriginals living in the cities probably wouldn’t want to learn those languages because they’re not their languages.

        It would be great to pick just one language and say everyone has to learn that one language, because it would no doubt greatly boost everyone’s abilities in that language because they can practice with their friends. On the other hand, there are some pitfalls. If the government were to say, “Everyone has to learn Mandarin”, there would be outrage. I live in an area where, only a hundred years ago, a significant portion of the schooling was done through German. Those schools were forced to swap to English during WWI, but even still, every single one of the primary schools in this area teaches German as a second language. Although most of the parents can’t speak German, there would be uproar if they were told their children had to learn Mandarin instead. Also, we’d lose some of our diversity. I’m quite proud of the fact that my state allows students to matriculate in 36 “second” languages, from Arabic to Yiddish – on the other hand, I was one of just over a dozen students in the non-background Spanish section last year, from one of the four schools in the state which offers it… how many students are there doing Maltese, Macedonian, or Bosnian? And how many of them studied those languages at day school, rather than after-hours in community-funded “ethnic” schools?

        On a lighter note, however, ACARA (the people who are allegedly organising the partially-implemented National Curriculum) have made language compulsory for at least eight years (primary and the first year of secondary) nationwide – which is an improvement, because it was previously only compulsory in about half of the states. Currently they’ve rolled out the curriculum in four languages (Italian, Chinese, French and Indonesian). This article even sounds quite upbeat:

        (Also, there’s a difference between “internationals” and “locals”. You can have a Chinese-background, Mandarin-speaking student at the school who will be considered “local” if he or she lives with his or her parents locally, even if he or she didn’t grow up in Australia, or go to primary school locally, etc. “International” students are sort of like long-term exchange students – they pay the Australian government, or their country’s government pays the Australian government, for their education and upkeep in Australia as they study, and they live with host families or in student accommodation. Some schools have more international students than others, and it’s usually just senior secondary and university students, although some internationals are in the middle secondary years.)


      2. Interesting. In the US, Spanish makes sense almost everywhere. The third language, though, varies a lot throughout the country. For example, the third most popular language in much of the West of the US is Tagalog. More than one state has Vietnamese. In the Upper Midwest, it’s Hmong.

        It’s amazing to me to think of Australians learning Italian. It seem so far away. Indonesian, Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), or Tagalog seem so much more practical. Even Vietnamese or Thai would strike me as good choices.


      3. Rachel

        It makes more sense when you realise that 5% of Australians have Italian ancestry (and 10% of those were born there) and almost 2% of Australians speak Italian at home – it’s the second-most spoken language after English (equal with Mandarin, then down to 1.5% for Arabic and 1.3% each for Cantonese and Greek). It also has very similar sounds and grammar, making it an ideal language to teach in primary schools. Also, the Italians have been a significant minority in Australia for a generation longer than the Vietnamese – perhaps in 20 years, Vietnamese will be taught almost as widely as Italian. (I’m not sure it will: Greek is nowhere near as popular as Italian as a second language). And there are good relations between Australia and Italy – it’s one of the most popular overseas destinations for Australian tourists, who can get in half-price to historic sites.

        Indonesian, as I said, is also popular – again, it has familiar sounds and an easy grammar, plus it’s very close! Mandarin and Japanese are popular – the former, again, because of close political ties to China.

        It amazes me to think of American children learning Hmong or Tagalog! They’re not even languages we really think about here.

        I learnt Italian in primary school, living in an area where a significant percentage (I mean at least half) spoke Italian at home. I can’t remember much, though, if I ever learnt it – there was a bit of a problem with the school teaching standard “Calabria” Italian and people speaking “Italo-Australian” or another dialect – plus most of the attention was given to the “Mother Tongue” students.

        (!) The secret is out – Australia wishes it were part of Europe! We keep finding sneaky ways to participate in Eurovision, from entering under parental nationalities to requestion assisting acts. The government want us to learn Mandarin, but the people want to learn Italian, German, and Bosnian so the Europeans will let us move our continent to join them.


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