Is it acceptable to use a non-English language at the workplace?

January 12, 2022 17:22


Written by: Clare Chong

2020 study published by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) on race, religion, and language revealed that up to 71 percent of respondents from different ethnicities in 2018 indicated inter-ethnic interactions in the public space should be in English while census information showed that English was the most spoken language at home for nearly 50 percent of Singapore residents. While it is widely established that English should be the official workplace language, when is it acceptable for us to use a non-English language with our co-workers then?

Formal vs casual work settings

Formal work settings refer to teamwork discussions and official meetings. It is not uncommon for coworkers of the same ethnicity to brainstorm or conduct small talks prior to the meetings in a language they are most comfortable in (which could be a non-English language). While there may not be any ill intention on their part, those who do not understand their language may feel excluded or alienated. They may feel that perhaps they are the subject of discussion and such misunderstandings can lead to microaggressions and conflicts over time.

The distinction between formal and casual could be blurred sometimes e.g. pantry chats, meal gatherings and hanging out with colleagues who are close friends. Should an English-only rule apply for work-related conversations as well as casual chats in the workplace? How about virtual communication in a work chat group? While it may feel intuitive to use a non-English language, such language use may influence work norms and be entrenched in an organisation’s culture. A case in point is how French and German MNCs actively promote the use of English across all their branch offices in order to attract global talent and remain inclusive. Their expatriates and managers in global positions also receive English training and are reminded of the importance of assimilating to the local work norms and not creating language-based cliques in their teams.

Set up a formal language policy in the workplace

The management should implement a formal language policy in the workplace and reinforce such a practice in daily interactions. HR should also diligently resolve complaints regarding language use and implement good practices to deter microaggressions. Training should also be provided to all employees to level up their English language and emphasize how the widespread use of foreign languages in work settings can breed mistrust and negativity in the workplace. Employees should also be encouraged to speak up if they feel that something is not right in a professional manner as their colleagues may not be aware of the impact of their non-English communication on others.

What do you think of having a formal language policy in your organisation? How do you think we can create a more inclusive workplace for different ethnicities to work together comfortably?

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