The Do’s and Don’ts of Using Foreign Languages in the Workplace


How do you promote inclusion in a workplace where employees are speaking a multiple of languages?  How do you create policies that are fair?  What is legal?  What is not?  What is a good practice and what is exclusionary?  The tips below will help you to create an understanding of what are respectful language policies.

1.  Don’t  have written policies that state “English only” in  the workplace. This is illegal in Canada and an employee can cite discrimination on the basis of country of origin or language.

2.  Do take into consideration  the competing interests of different stakeholders when discussing how and when it is helpful to speak another language in the workplace.

3.  Don’t make an issue out of two people speaking together on a break or lunch hour.  Employees have the right to do so on their break, and usually they find this to be relaxing.

4.  Do encourage people  in a supportive way to speak English even if they have a language barrier. Empathize. Ask them if they would like you to correct them. Sometimes employees may use their first language for communication because they feel self-conscious about their grammar and pronunciation or the negative reaction they receive from English speakers.

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5. Don’t make rigid statements about English only in the workplace as it could backfire.  Instead,  have a discussion with employees about under what circumstances they think are reasonable.  Most companies will agree that when it comes to an emergency or health and safety, speaking a foreign language is necessary.

6. Do let employees and co-workers know if you feel excluded from conversations because they are not speaking a language that the rest of the group understands.  Sometimes people are unaware of the impact that this may have on morale and productivity as well as their self-image.

7. Don’t overlook the point that speaking foreign languages may be a symptom of a larger issue of exclusion:  workplace cliques, cultural divide, insecurity and lack of trust.  Your organization may have bigger problems that are fueling the desire to speak other languages in the workplace when it is not warranted.

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2 Comments

  1. Justin

     /  July 21, 2017

    I work in a furniture manufacturing company. I speak only english.
    I am required to train with minorities who cannot speak english,and refuse to do so . I am being subjected to discrimination and have to forego any advancement ,because I cannot communicate with my co-workers. I just turned down an opportunity to train in another area,because the staff working there cannot speak my language.
    And are not happy about me working there. Its obvious ,they even scowl and frown at me in the lunch room on my breaks.I feel very alienated and isolated. Is this legal? Is it because I am a white blue collar worker?

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    • Hi Justin;
      Thank you for your message. I am not sure what country you are writing from but in Canada you may have a case of bullying and harassment although I don’t know all of the details. When a person or persons create a toxic environment for others to work in, that becomes a disciplinary issue. In Canada there is legislation which protects workers from bullying and harassment. Who is your boss? Is it the owner? An unskilled employer may only see the productivity benefits of hiring certain people but doesn’t consider how to make the workplace a good for all. If your boss is someone you can speak to or if you have an approachable person in HR you should speak to them about this. If you are living in North America the operative language is English and you should not be penalized for wanting to speak it in your workplace. If the job required you to speak a foreign language, it should have been specified when you started. You should not be held back because of your boss’ inability to create a healthy work environment for everyone nor should you be penalized for others not speaking English. Document what happens at work every day and keep it in a safe spot at home. If you have a union steward speak to them or contact the government body that might have some jurisdiction over harassment and workplace bullying. They may be able to help you. If all else fails, consider looking for another job and I know that is not easy. Or ultimately you may have to accept that change will not happen there, which is really unfortunate but a possibility. Speaking a foreign language is not illegal but it may be extremely impolite if the goal is to exclude others. If they don’t know any other way there is not much in the way of choice unless your boss asks them to learn English. Or you may try to get on their good side by learning a few words in their language.

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      Reply

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