I recently tweeted this statement. A Saudi friend of mine responded with surprise at such an obvious assertion. I explained to him that in the US people often view people who speak poor English as stupid, lazy, or exclusive. In the workplace we often view those who speak “poor” English as deficient, inconvenient, or even dangerous. For teachers insufficient English is a huge challenge to overcome, for doctors it can be life-threatening, and in many workplaces it is at least an inconvenience. We have to hire translators and specialists and provide training in English, which is expensive. Overcoming the inconvenience of a lack of English skills is costly however you look at it–from this point of view. If we look at these people from a different point of view, we can see that they offer unique abilities to those around them.
This is the same way that many people talk about “disabled” people. They’re inconveniences. People who can’t see aren’t able to read documents. Those who can’t hear aren’t able to participate fully in meetings. Those who can’t walk are a dangerous liability is the case of a fire or other emergency. Businesses have to make costly accommodations for people with disabilities that we don’t have to make for others.
When it comes to physical disabilities, our society found a way of reversing this viewpoint by focusing on what the person is able to do, rather than unable to do. First, this is a human being with skills, not to be defined completely around one disability. Second, they bring unique abilities to the group. People develop heightened senses when they lack one. People can see the world from the point of view of being overlooked when they spend all day in a wheelchair literally having people look over them. All of them bring unique problem-solving skills because of the way they adapt to a society that doesn’t take them into consideration. When we see the “disabled” as “differently-abled” we all gain a new, indispensable viewpoint for approaching everyday tasks.
When I was recently at the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) conference, I had the fortune to speak about this issue with a bilingual English speaker who moves around in a wheelchair. She informed me about how employers view disabled people as a problem needing accommodation rather than an individual offering different abilities. She works to educate employers of people’s different abilities, rather than their lack of certain abilities. They are not to be pitied or worked-around, but seen as individuals with strengths and weaknesses.
Non-native English speakers–or those who speak no English at all–must be viewed as possessing unique abilities. They are not incompetent in English but highly competent in another language. They are differently-abled. We do not need to look upon them as people who are lacking in a language, but who offer another language to the workplace community.
People who speak poor English speak another language well.
For this reason, I am starting up language tables at my workplace. I want to highlight able, multilingual individuals who possess unique abilities so they can teach their knowledge to the rest of us. They speak a language that most people at work do not speak. Many of them are immigrants, so their life testifies to navigating different cultures and often overcoming adversity and a drastic change in life. Such a life offers important lessons to everyone. Thankfully, they offer knowledge and wisdom at work that others cannot. If people are willing to work at learning from their colleagues, work could help them become wiser and more knowledgable.
If we learn another language we enable higher morale and productivity at work. Those we work with overseas can feel at ease in participating with a foreign firm on equal terms without an atmosphere of imperialism. Domestically, we allow people to bring their whole selves to work. Thus our work environments improve significantly. In addition, we can act on this subtle discrimination (before it might become a legal matter).
Moreover, the individuals at the company can benefit personally. Everyone can learn another language and benefit from another way of life. Those whose communication skills were considered only in relation to their English proficiency will be seen as teachers no matter what their English level is. A deficiency will be considered an advantage for the company. Companies can win when they embrace loving language.
Photo credit: VinothChandar / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)