Recently a Japanese multinational company in Mississauga issued a memo to its staff letting them know that they needed to speak English at the office. Apparently the company has a very diverse workforce was beginning to sound like the Tower of Babel.
The smattering of South Asian employees were all for it. One of them explained how annoying and rude she found it when other co-workers would speak English to her and on seeing other co-workers from the same background would break into their own language, leaving her feeling quite foolish. The break room ended up having staffers from the same background sit together and pretty soon there was stark segregation of races. A couple of managers realizing that this sort of division wasn’t healthy decided to change it. The ethnic co-workers not only spoke to each other in their native tongue while socializing but even when it came to work-related stuff.
Need to use a common language
It is natural for people sharing the same linguistic background to break into their language, it tends to be very common among mostly first-generation immigrants. While it doesn’t really matter if you speak a native tongue in public, it does tend to grate on the nerves when it happens in an office environment.
Most large Canadian organizations would balk at sending out such a memo about language to their staff fearing lawsuits. Some staff would naturally claim their Charter Rights would be violated by such a directive concerning the use of their own language.
It is perfectly okay for a person who isn’t conversant in English to speak exclusively in their native language but rude for co-workers fluent in English to deliberately break into it when others who don’t know the language are around.
The South Asian working at this organization was grateful such a memo went out because it was ‘very annoying when co-workers always spoke among themselves in their native language because there were times she suspected they were talking about her in a conspiratorial manner.
Language as identity
I have worked at organizations in the past where two South Asian men would end up speaking Hindi loudly among themselves in the lunch room, the three Chinese women and the two Pakistani women spoke their own language and since I was more comfortable speaking English ended up talking to the Caucasians. Whenever my South Asian co-workers encountered me initially, they would break into Hindi and I would invariably answer back in English. After a while they got the message.
One time with another group of co-workers I went so far as to casually mention that speaking a native language at an office when others around couldn’t understand was rude. They didn’t think so claiming that this was a multicultural country and they everyone had a right to speak any language they chose.
To me it isn’t about rights, but common courtesy and good manners. In a multicultural society, it is important to ensure that no one feels left out and language can be a major cause of alienation. Otherwise what you are left with is a deeply fragmented society, and immigrants from different ethnic backgrounds end up living and socializing exclusively among themselves.
If a Canadian newcomer cannot speak English or French, they end up alienated from the mainstream, this is why it is imperative that all newcomers be fluent in order to navigate professionally and socially. But choosing to speak to others from one’s own ethnic background in the native language when others are around sends out a message to others to keep away. It really can be construed as a form of self-segregation. This is especially true in offices where most of the others don’t know the language. It is rude and divisive, period.
A woman who worked retail once told me how it annoyed her when customers who spoke to her in English suddenly would switch to their own language so she could not understand what they were saying. They were well within her rights, but she often felt awkward standing there and would often excuse herself to give them privacy. It would be better if the customers simply stepped away and excused themselves to talk in private rather than switch to another language.
Many immigrants see nothing wrong
I have often sought the views of other South Asians about this issue and I’ve got a range of opinions.
Many first-generation South Asian immigrants who worked in India spoke English at the office and Hindi or the native language to peons. Speaking English or Hinglish in India is proof of one’s status and education. Now when the South Asian immigrant moves to Canada, he or she often finds that their knowledge of English doesn’t bestow upon them any special status. So they end up flaunting the use of their native tongue and behaving like it is a status symbol. While learning and using one’s native language isn’t a bad thing and gives immigrants a psychological feeling of being connected with all they left behind, it shouldn’t end up alienating them in their new country.