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.
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