Crime and punishment in loving languages

Excluding languages is against the law
Excluding languages is against the law

I love hearing people speak multiple languages around me. Recently I’ve gotten over any nervousness about asking people what language they speak, so I’m always having fun with the people and languages around me.

Nevertheless, I know that this feeling does not permeate all of our culture. Plenty of bosses feel the need to control how people talk to one another. Employees feel excluded when colleagues speak to each other in a language they don’t understand. Customers feel suspicious that workers speaking another language might be saying unflattering things about them. Our society largely distrusts other languages, dividing those who only speak English and everyone else.

Forcing only English to be spoken at work is against the law. It is discrimination. Yet some employers exclude languages at work even while workers talk on the phone to family members or walk to their cars in the parking lot. While I would prefer that people enjoy the languages around them, I am relieved that eliminating all languages besides English at work breaks the law. I wanted to present some examples of real language discrimination, as well as the settlements against it, both in the US and abroad.

Harassment and hostility for Filipinos

In 2012, 69 Filipino nurses won a language discrimination settlement from the LA-area hospital where they worked. Management would tell them, “English only! English only!” as they were singled out among speakers of various languages and forbidden to speak their language “at any time” at the hospital—even among themselves or on the phone with family members. (Filipino is the third most widely-spoken language in the state of California.)

These employees claimed that they suffered “constant harassment” from coworkers and management. Housekeepers and security guards would follow them around, under orders to watch and report on the Filipino employees’ speech. This hostility affected the atmosphere so much that one worker sprayed air freshener into a Filipino coworker’s lunch because of her “hatred” of her cuisine.

The hospital settled for $975,000 and regular staff training on diversity, with three years of monitoring by an outside agency.

Forbidden to speak Polish

In Aberdeen, Scotland, a Polish woman, Magdalena Konieczna, won a cash payout because of being banned from speaking Polish and consequently fired. Not only did one manager regularly refer to Polish workers as “f***ing Polish,” but she was not allowed to speak Polish at the factory, even to other Polish workers who could not speak English.

Management claimed that the rule arose from health and safety reasons, although the judgment—as well as logic—concluded that the rule caused more safety concerns, not fewer. The situation was so ridiculous that one Polish employee had to bring an interpreter to assist in an interview with Ms. Konieczna, rather than conduct the interview directly in Polish.

She wished to pursue an unfair dismissal suit, but could not because she had been employed less than two years.

The factory paid out more than £5,000 in 2016. The tribunal rejected Ms. Konieczna’s desire to sue the company for discrimination on the grounds that the English-only policy did not disadvantage her since she speaks English.

Nigerian denied a promotion

The Insurance Journal cited the case of a Nigerian car salesman in Phoenix who was denied a promotion. While the salesman spoke fluent English, managers told him he need to speak “more like an American.”

The dealership settled out of court for $99,000 in 2008.

The same article presents the increase in such cases.

Workplace discrimination complaints based on national origin — which often involve language ability — rose by 76 percent from 1997 to 2011, when more than 11,800 complaints were lodged with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

I Iike to encourage loving languages with a proverbial “carrot,” such as making connections with and learning from others. As we can see, though, a “stick” is out there, too. Our society has decided that allowing languages other than English is a right worth protecting, and that speaking English with a foreign accent should not be considered a deficit for job promotion. Companies should learn how to incorporate and encourage the use of multiple languages at work rather than pressure and control other means of communication and expression.

Do you believe in language discrimination? Is it helpful only to allow a single language in certain contexts?

Photo credit: Law Society of Upper Canada Archives via / No known copyright restrictions

11 thoughts on “Crime and punishment in loving languages

  1. In my country we think it is rude to speak a language not everybody understands at social gatherings, f.e. if Uncle Piotr speaks Polish to Aunt Anna when part of the family only speaks German. At work, it depends: in a multilingual environment, there is usually one common language (which is not necessarily German), but two Italian employees communicating in Italian will not raise eyebrows. 25 years ago, when I got my first job, the language of insurance business in Europe was French. So, when I (based in Germany) sent a fax to a Czech or an Italian insurance company I was expected to write in French. Nowadays, English has taken over (but when I am on the phone and need to make notes, I tend to use French shorthand). However, some companies do have a German-only policy. But even in those companies employees are free to speak their own language when the conversation is not work-related.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a German cultural norm that I like. But it assumes that people are willing–and able!–to speak in a language other than their native language. But I think it’s a great reason to learn 2-3 languages to increase the likelihood of overlap.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I was thinking more about this comment after my reply. A few thoughts came to mine. I’ve experienced this German custom a lot. We have a Director from Germany at our company who comes to visit our office sometimes. I love speaking German with him, but he gets uncomfortable when there are non-German-speakers around. I like speaking German, but I like his awareness of the exclusion of others.

      A long time ago I read a comment by Miss Manners. She said that etiquette involves the realm that is not covered by law. What I like about the German etiquette is that it is a societal agreement, not a policy or law. Once it becomes otherwise, I get nervous.

      For example, I don’t like it that some Danish clubs forbid languages besides Danish, English, and German.

      I don’t like it when it’s used selectively for some immigrants but not for others. For example, people may be happy to learn English to speak with expats from the UK, but it doesn’t occur to learn Turkish to speak with enormous amounts of expats from Turkey. I believe that both Brits and Turks should do their best to learn German in Germany, but I think that Anglophones get more leniency than Turks.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nick

    While I am a proud supporter of multilingualism in general, I have to concede that talking multiple languages in a workplace can severely disrupt a team dynamic, especially when there is an immediate or complex task at hand.

    With that being said, I have also been at informal gatherings where people are more than happy to share idioms and phrases of their own language, which can really broaden perspectives or simply create a fun atmosphere (have you tried foreign language tongue twisters after a few drinks?).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, but I think that point is intuitive to most people. I’ve seen construction crews of mixed nationalities, and while you might hear chatter in, say, Spanish, everyone knows how to say, “Look out!” in English.

      I once visited a call center in Lisbon for customers all over Europe. Everyone spoke at least three languages. With each other they spoke Portuguese, and with me they spoke English. I spoke as much Portuguese as I could.

      I knew the director of a factory outside of Chicago. She dove headfirst into learning about all the different cultures represented by her employees. When she left, they all signed a card with “thank you” in their native languages–over 20!

      I think the “carrot” is often left out of the conversation. While it is helpful to have a single language in case of emergency or high complexity, why not make use of the time and learn some of the languages of other people?


  3. Here’s one more example for your list! “Законопроектом предлагается запретить использование иностранных языков иностранными гражданами и лицами без гражданства, работающими в России по договору в рабочее время и на рабочем месте.” (РИА Новости

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rachel

    I was interested to read the Nigerian example. If, for whatever reason, I one day found myself in the US seeking employment, is there the possibility that I would be turned down based on “not sounding American enough”? Or is there some sort of dialectal preference (like Trippmadam was saying about English v. Turkish in German) which would allow an RP/Australian English accent over a Nigerian English or Indian English one?

    I like to think Australia’s pretty open-minded about languages but that’s probably not as true as it could be. On one hand, I grew up in an area where I would go into the deli and hear the serving girls speaking Italian to the lady before us and the lady after us, but switch to English for my mother (we look very clearly non-Italian). But on the other hand, my sister’s high school, which was easily 50% internationals (mostly Mandarin- or Vietnamese-speaking) plus a huge number of second-generation kids, had signs up about the place saying “Please speak English because it’s the only language we all understand”. I did a semester subject there externally and a classmate and I removed one of the signs… we only hesitated because of the extreme irony of having the notice posted outside the French classroom.

    There is a general feeling that it’s rude to speak in a language which someone in the room can’t understand – who knows what you’re saying if you can’t be understood, after all? Last year at Sgoil Naiseanta, the strange situation arose in the dining room that we’d speak Gaelic to each other at the tables or standing around, but as soon as we got in the serving line, we’d switch to English because the ladies who were serving couldn’t understand Gaelic. One of them, a friendly Samoan lady, said to me on the second morning, “Why aren’t you speaking your own language anymore? Say something in your own language!” In that way, it’s good to be able to speak a minority language no-one’s heard of and be able to claim it as “my” language, because I can use it as a platform to encourage people around me not to be ashamed of their own language. “Madainn mhath; that’s ‘good morning’ in my language. How do you say that in yours?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for taking down that sign outside of the French class!

      I like that Samoan lady. Did you learn how to say anything in Samoan? My friend spent three years in the Peace Corps in Western Samoa and he learned how to speak some Samoan. Very cool!


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