Language in the workplace

According to an article on Eurolang, the travel company Thomas Cook has requested that staff in it’s branch in Bangor “speak English when discussing work-related matters in the workplace”. This has been interpreted as a ban on staff speaking Welsh in what is one of the strongest Welsh-speaking areas. As a result, there have been a number of protests and talk of legal action.

An article on this story on the BBC News site mentions that Thomas Cook “told staff they must conduct business conversations in English, as it is the UK’s common language.” This policy apparently applies to all non-English languages and to offices throughout the UK. This is intended to ensure clear communication, the company claims.

There’s some discussion of this story here and there’s an article about it in Welsh here.

In a polyglot office like the one I work in, the language we all have in common is English, which is the main language we use. Some of us also speak to each other in other languages such as Spanish, Italian or Mandarin.

Does your company tell you which language you should speak at work? Do you think they have any right to do so?

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This entry was posted in Language, Welsh.

14 Responses to Language in the workplace

  1. James says:

    well it sounds like meddling, but I don´t know what the real story is. We speak spanish at work and I teach in Spanish, though i do talk english to some of the australians.

  2. Joe DeRose says:

    I had a boss once who had worked at the YMCA in Jerusalem. He said every group meeting began with a discussion about which language would be used (Hebrew, Arabic, English, or German). The choice would vary depending on what worked best for the particular group of employees. I always thought that sounded nice.

    If my employer told me what language to use, I would consider it such an unacceptable political statement that I would consider leaving the job. Fortunately, that’s not a danger where I work.

    I’ve always felt that countries (and the corporations therein) have an obligation to support the minority languages in their areas, and therefore Thomas Cook’s explanation for this action disappoints me greatly.

    — Joe / Atlanta / USA

  3. Polly says:

    My company has a policy of English between co-workers but if someone deals with customers they can speak to the customer in their own language. This is routinely violated with impugnity. I probably say good morning each day in about 6 languages:

    Spanish, Armenian, Tagalog, Navajo, Russian, Korean, Mandarin, and English. Occasionally, German or French, but that’s just for fun – no one here really speaks German or much French. I know at least a couple people who speak Arabic, one Serbian, One Dane, and oh yes, Polish. All in 1 relatively small office building – approx. 100 people.

    I’m in Los Angeles, CA. Obviously our company is in America…we are also in K-Town (K=Korea), we’re also in the largest concentration of expat Philipinos in the world, we are also about 45% hispanic (as of 2000)…and so on. Believe it or not, Spanish is not the dominant non-English language here.

    I can see why a company would want a language policy. Otherwise, we may end up in a tower of Babel. Not separated by language but separated by ethnicity.

    A common language is necessary for the country as a whole, too, I believe. I don’t think we should have two official languages. But, I think we should all be at least bilingual. Unlike countries like Switzerland or Belgium, the US is very, very diverse. We need to hold language in common because so little else is.

  4. Geoff says:

    At my office, most of us speak French as well as English, and we frequently exchange pleasantries or short messages in French. However, when customers are present, we always speak English so that they will know 1) that we’re not talking about them and 2) that we’re not excluding them from information Francophones in the same room would understand.

    Companies may impose a language to ensure that internal communication is in line with administrative process, to ensure that staff can use the designated language competently for communication with clients, to ensure that staff automatically uses the language it wants used with its clientele and to ensure that its offices have a certain feel to clients coming in in the middle of things.

    I’m glad to work in an office where I can frequently switch to French, and where Spanish speakers can get help with their work in Spanish. But I can see how our office could be intimidating for a non-native speaker of English who has just rehearsed what he needs to say, only to be disoriented by chatter in French at the front desk and a torrent of Spanish emerging from the accounting office around the corner. If my company felt this was a problem, they would be within their rights to address it.

    I can’t speak to the reasons or reasoning of Thomas Cook. But if employees feel that language policies affect the environment in which they work, then language policies also affect the environment in which business is done and clients get their needs met. The people who organize this and pay the rent on the office may legitimately have some say in such matters.

  5. Travis says:

    I agree with Polly. Even though the idea of accommodating everyone is tempting… and I find traveling to countries with multiple official languages most interesting, the main point is communication. Having a common language is a tool for simplification within a diverse social system. The more languages a country uses officially, the more weighed down the bureaucracy is likely to be. I also think Polly’s point of being at least bilingual is a good idea.

  6. Anders says:

    At my work we can speak what language we want. The compan’s policy is that everyone must be able to speak Swedish, but some immigrants speak Swedish very porly. Tigrinya is probably the most common mother tongue at my company. We ethnic swedes are far outnumbered. When having lunch with them one must listen to their mumbo jumbo without understanding anything.

  7. Josh says:

    I don’t know if you should be calling Tigrinya “mumbo jumbo”. That doesn’t ring offensive to you?

  8. James says:

    well if they are rude enough to exclude people from their conversation then yes, I think it´s fine to call a language “mumbo jumbo”, be it French, Arabic or English for that matter. The basic “rule” is that if there is even one person in a bilingual group who is only monolingual you speak their language. It´s just manners.

  9. SamD says:

    I doubt that the Tigrinya speakers are deliberately excluding people from their conversations. They are more comfortable speaking Tigrinya, and it probably feels more natural for them to use that language with other people who speak it.

    However, that situation obviously leads to people becoming very uncomfortable. They’re probably not talking about you in Tigrinya, but unless you speak that language you can never be completely certain about it.

    If you can use second languages to make customers more comfortable and do the job more effectively, by all means do so. There just seems to be a need for a certain balance.

  10. Polly says:

    When having lunch with them one must listen to their mumbo jumbo without understanding anything.

    (“mumbo jumbo” is not a term I’d use, but maybe it’s nicer in Swedish?)

    What you said reminds me of lunchtime each day at work. Usually there is a large group of Tagalog speakers comprised of multiple departments that lunches each day in the “break” room. They converse entirely in their language, even though they’re fluent in English, more-or-less.
    I’ve learned some Tagalog and I find that I’m starting to understand bits and pieces. I actually like it. I try to use as much as I know and sometimes I even ask for definitions of words that stick out or ring in my ears. I look upon it as an opportunity.

    BUT, I am not part of the group; I’m just in the same large room and happen to be taking my lunch break at the same time. I agree with James’s “rule” for the alternative scenario. It is rude not to use a common language if you are sitting there with them.

  11. I do think that a language policy when on the clock makes sense if not everybody in the group is bilingual. Human nature is to be uncomfortable when you’re being cut out of a conversation, even unintentionally. At the very least, one should not do that in front of the customer, but I think a good argument can be made for during work hours. At least in the U.S., it would be inappropriate to have a rule about what language people speak when they’re on their lunch break or otherwise off-duty, but on-duty, one should not be putting others in a position where they are excluded.

  12. Benjamin says:

    Well, I don’t really see, why someone should be allowed to tell you what language to speak at work… if the other person speaks the same “other language” as you do – why shouldn’t you talk using this language?
    So you can’t talk about other people in a language that they don’t understand? That’s a stupid reason… or else there should be a policy against ‘talking behind someone’s back’ as well… which would be quite the same.
    I think the only thing a company can and should require from it’s staff is, that everyone speaks a certain ‘lingua franca’, so everyone can talk to everybody else.

    As for talking to customers: Of course, you’ll have to choose a certain language then, which the staff and the customer can understand. But that’s trivial, right?

  13. Ben says:

    In my office, I commonly hear four languages: English, Russian, Hindi and Spanish. We’re a big mix here and some people can express themselves better in one of the four languages, so when they can, they use them. However, all electronic communication is done in English, as they tend to be sent to multiple people, some of whom are not fluent in all four languages. In our sister office in Jordan, Arabic, of course, is spoken.
    We also have native speakers of Mandarin, Tzotzil Mayan, Magahi, Telugu, Vietnamese, but there aren’t enough of them to warrant communication. I like the mix of languages. I think it keeps things fresh and it helps, in some regards, in doing our jobs, as we are a voice recognition company.

    -Ben

  14. Robert Budzul says:

    I’m wondering whether there’s ever a situation where a group of English speakers is forced to speak another language to make allowances for someone?

    It seems to me that usually it’s everyone else that gets brow-beaten into using English.

    Those that complain about not understanding are probably monoglots that can’t understand how unnatural it can be to have to speak a foreign language with someone to whom one has always spoken a different common language.