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.


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.

To learn more about how to respectfully accommodate foreign languages in the workplace, please preview  and purchase our video at

Leave a comment


  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?


    • 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.


  2. Peter Leonard D'Urso

     /  May 22, 2018

    Hello… I have a case where my employers and management spoke a different language between themselves while I was among them. even during my interview . Would this be a violation of human rights?


    • Hi Peter;

      I don’t see how it could be a violation of your human rights, although their actions are rude. You might want to let them know that it makes you feel uncomfortable. Sometimes people do this when they want to hide information or they just automatically default to a language which is more familiar to them.


      • Peter Leonard D'Urso

         /  June 3, 2018

        Thank you very much for answering my question… I do understand quite well that some people feel more comfortable speaking their own language if they are newcomers, but only when they have difficulty with the English. Since their English is somehow perfect, It is obvious they spoke another language purposely to hide or to make next person unaware of their conversation. Even their gestures made me feel uncomfortable. I would consider any employer and its management to be above certain behaviour and to be of example in the workplace. The issue is that I quit my job, as a result EI cut my benefits causing me a lot of problems that made me feel sick.
        I have to thank my local MP office for the help they gave in solving the problem. The constant behaviour of the managers towards speaking different language amongst themselves was unacceptable if it concerned the presence of others and it was just cause for refusing the job.

        I believe, like you say, it is bad manners and disrespect to others to speak a different language other than English, unless the person can not speak the language or is a foreigner and needs to interpret. Etc, etc….


      • If you find your employer needs more convincing, I have developed a new video on this subject and it is located on my new website They can purchase a video that describes it in more details. Thanks for your reply.


  3. Lee

     /  September 27, 2019

    Hello … just a question regarding speaking a native language at work, after reading some of the comments and answer hope you can widen my understanding on the issue. First we work on a food retail location and most of my co workers are speaking same language, giving instructions and things to do while working are we violating any laws on that? , second our union steward always raising it an issue that we are not allowed to speak our native language , we are part of the union. I even heard one time our steward says “we live in Canada so we should speak speak English”. We know that it’s rude to speak language on a workplace but sometimes it’s easier to give instruction and teach each other. Are we violating any law ? Is our union steward at work right?


    • Peter

       /  March 1, 2023

      It is not a good Idea to speak your own language when you are working with other coworkers. One of the major reason is that it makes the other people uncomfortable and doubtful about what you are saying. You are actually excluding the other coworker from the working environment. It is not a good idea to do so when you are teamed with other employees that speak the same language. Do not forget that we are in Canada and you should speak the same language when at work.


  4. Lisa Campbell

     /  December 2, 2021

    I work in a fast food chain… Ive been told by the district manager that others can speak in their native language when training someone.. But other than that it should ONLY be english or french.. Ive complained a number of times about English not being used… And the conversations seem more personal as all the staff are fully trained… Just wondering what my next step should be.


    • Peter

       /  April 22, 2022

      All workplaces have the same situation.. And it seems like the same culture members prefer to speak their own language, not English, knowing they are excusing some other colleagues present, many times done purposely. Once they form a team and have some managers on their side, they will dominate as if they took charge of the workplace, forgetting they are in Canada dealing with English speaking people. In one instance some colleagues and management speaking the foreign language were so loud on the sales floor I made a comment to them and said Tha no one else understands what they are saying and that this made me and customers unconfortable. Do we really think it is right for them to practice their language when at work?


  5. Patrick

     /  August 20, 2022

    I work in an environment where I am being alienated by my coworkers who constantly speak Filipino all the time. I am bullied and ordered around by them. I work in an English speaking facility. Even though I have asked them to speak English around me they refuse to. What can I do to keep my job and my sanity



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