When language becomes a root of conflicts

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Pradip Rodrigues

Officially, Canada has two languages, English and French. In the US, it is English, however since 1965 Immigration Act, Spanish is the second most common language in the country. Depending where you live in Canada there are other languages like Mandarin, Punjabi, Tamil and Urdu that are second most spoken languages.

Over the weekend I met a young 25-year-old second-generation South Asian living in Kitchener who has been trying unsuccessfully to get into the police force. All across the GTA qualified candidates belonging to an ethnic minority would get in more easily given that organizations are desperately trying to ensure the optics suggest diverse workforces. But while the young South Asian has the right qualifications and the color to make it, he doesn’t speak any language other than English. And although it isn’t a legal pre-requisite for employment in most organizations, it is clear that if he spoke an additional Indian language, he might have gotten a lot further. His mother was feeling almost guilty for not forcing him to learn an Indian language.

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The same story in the US

One time on a subway in NYC I got talking with a middle-aged Caucasian nurse working in a hospital located in the Hispanic neighborhood in Queens. I asked how she managed to communicate and she sounded exasperated as she told me that in order to prevent a mental breakdown, she had taken some Spanish language courses which allowed her to conduct some basic conversations. She was hired decades earlier when English was more widely spoken but if she was looking for work today, she would not have got the job as all candidates are expected to know Spanish. It has suddenly become a pre-requisite for many job categories.

This automatically put any non-Spanish speaking minority at a disadvantage including a South Asian living in Queens who spoke English and Bengali. His 21-year-old son found it really hard getting a job as interviewers made it very clear that Spanish was essential in order to be effective on the job. Although he spoke Bengali, that language was not yet as important in the region as Spanish. However if he was looking for work in a Bengali-dominated area of say Jackson Heights, Queens, he might have found himself a job.
In order to reach customers organizations are often forced to select candidates who look and speak the language of their customers. It’s a nice gesture as far as ethnic minorities go, but is it fair to other Canadians?

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I have met a successful South Asian wealth manager who inadvertently told me that her knowledge of her native language made her stand out. As it happened, she worked at a bank branch where a large number of customers spoke that particular language and being one of two South Asians working, she was often called upon to assist these clients. Her numbers were great and promotions followed.

I have heard a South Asian working at a car dealership grumble because all the Chinese customers ended up approaching the Chinese sales people and because few South Asian customers came to this particular dealership, this person saw himself at a disadvantage.

I am willing to bet that if all new immigrants found that the only languages spoken were either English or French in Canada, there would be a lot more electing to perfect one of those languages and organizations would not need to prefer candidates who knew their own cultural languages in addition to English and French. Many would view this as a reverse form of discrimination. Why should a native born Canadian or a second generation South Asian be at a disadvantage because they aren’t familiar with a language spoken in the region? -CINEWS

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