Multilingualism raises language policy questions

The question of language is one that organizations may want to avoid addressing but can't, given Canada's increasing mix of cultures

As Canadian workplaces become more and more diverse, employers may find themselves grappling with whether to impose an official language policy.

At Hay River, N.W.T., an employee of H.H. Williams Memorial Hospital last month received a letter of reprimand after someone overheard her speaking French to a colleague. According to media reports, the letter said it is rude and impolite to speak a language other than English.

Paul Vieira, chief executive officer of the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority, said he wouldn’t comment on the particulars of the case. He did stress, however, that the incident “is part of a more complex personnel issue at the facility” and that there are “layers” to the incident.

In general, however, “people are quite welcome to speak in a language other than English when appropriate. In circumstances where there could be risk to the public if other team members cannot speak the same language, English is our common working language. So as a rule, when people are interacting about work-related issues, English is the language that’s spoken,” said Vieira.

The question of language is one that organizations may want to avoid addressing but, given the country’s increasing mix of cultures, eventually have to. In Quebec, employers are obliged by law to ensure that French is the language of the workplace. In the rest of Canada, the question is a matter of discretion. Does the organization want to seem welcoming to workers from all corners of the world, or is it more concerned about the discomfort a cacophony of languages may generate among workers? Should the employer lean towards diversity or inclusion in pondering a language policy?

At the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority, Vieira said he wouldn’t have any problem with two orderlies discussing their work in their shared mother tongue. However, using another language would be a problem if “people are working as a team on a common case, and it could be critical for public safety and quality of care if the common language is not being used,” said Vieira.

He noted that the authority does value a multilingual workforce. “In fact, we even compensate people who declare that they’re bilingual, whether it’s French or one of the Aboriginal languages or an Asian language. There’s extra compensation for them because we do value that skill.”

At the Pan Pacific Vancouver hotel, director of people innovation Kimberlee LoCicero said employees are encouraged to identify their linguistic abilities by wearing a flag under their name tag. Still, English is considered “the language of choice throughout all our properties, and even in Asia as well,” where Pan Pacific is headquartered, said LoCicero.

The hotel’s language policy dates back to the early days after it was opened, said LoCicero. “There were complaints coming forward. ‘My colleagues are speaking French. I don’t know if they’re speaking about me.’ So from people complaining about people speaking other languages and the rudeness of it, we decided to remind everybody that English is the official language at work. You can practise (another language) but as soon as a third party is around and it can be perceived that they’re excluded from the conversation, we ask them to use English.”

LoCicero said the rule applies even in instances where the third party was never meant to be part of the conversation. “Let’s say I’m in the hallway and I’m speaking to someone in French. If someone else goes by, I would switch back to English. It’s so that there’s no question about what we were saying,” said LoCicero.

Across town, the Marriott Vancouver employs a similar policy. The difference, however, is “at break time, associates can speak whatever language they want. It’s their own time and typically they sit with people with similarities. So they, a lot of times, would talk in their own languages. And that’s just fine,” said Rachael Cabrera, director of HR.

In contrast, a laissez-faire policy is in place at Imaging Systems Group, a Calgary-based manufacturer of thermal and digital printing technology, which employs about 30 people, many of whom speak Vietnamese or Filipino Tagalog.

“When they’re among the rest of the workers, they will speak English,” said controller Dave Christopoulos. “It’s mostly when they’re by themselves working in the back that they’ll speak whatever that’s comfortable. We don’t have anything against people speaking whatever is easier for them.”

People have good reasons for speaking languages other than English at the work, said a University of Toronto academic who has conducted research on language issues at work and in school.

“Sometimes people can get a job done better by using their own language. People come to the workplace with different proficiencies in English, so people often do better when they talk about that task in their first language, even though they will ultimately present the finished task in the language of the workplace,” said Tara Goldstein, associate professor in the department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Speaking a mother tongue with other workers also helps build solidarity. “It’s a way of creating friendships and building relationships that will serve you well in completing tasks.”

What’s more, noted Goldstein, there can be negative consequences for people who avoid speaking with compatriots in their shared language. “If you speak Cantonese as your first language, and you have a colleague who speaks Cantonese as her language, and you use English when that person knows you can speak Cantonese, you will be considered a show off. Because then, you’re showing off your language skills.”

The ideal way around this dilemma is to have an explicit discussion and invite co-workers to come up with an agreement around language. As workplace demographics change, added Goldstein, people may grow more comfortable with multilingual environments.

“The fact that people use different languages isn’t what’s getting in the way of social cohesion. For me, it’s our attitudes about the different languages and our fears of being talked about behind our back. Where there are good relationships, people can count on the fact that their co-workers aren’t necessarily using language as a tool to hurt them,” said Goldstein.

“I think it’s about a fear of others, a fear of languages and communities that they’re not familiar with. And if that’s what it’s about, then I think we do need to talk about it. Maybe there needs to be some other kind of community building or some social activities to build cohesion. But language itself is not where the problem is.”

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