Empathy can go a long way towards understanding how sensitive language diversity can be. For me it was years ago when I spoke to an audience of 190 German executives in Dusseldorf – in English, of course, but had nothing to say during dinner when everyone spoke German except me – or when I sat around the table in Amsterdam with 25 folks who adroitly moved from one language to another. Woefully deficient – not excluded – the proverbial “bump on the log,” is how I felt in those uncomfortable situations.
Hold my experience (and think through yours) as we turn now to today’s column.
“A car with diplomatic plates pulls to the curb in downtown New York. The driver rolls down the window and motions to a couple of pedestrians. The two Big Apple natives walk over to the car. The driver says, ‘Parlez-vous Français?’ The New Yorkers look at him and shrug. The driver then says, ‘Sprechen Sie Deutsches?’ The two shrug again and shake their heads. The driver then tries, ‘Parlate italiano?’ They again shake their heads. Exasperated the driver speeds off. As they watch the car disappear down the street, one New Yorker says to the other, ‘Do you think we need to learn a foreign language?’ His friend replies, ‘I don’t think so. He knew three of them and it didn’t help him.” ‘
This tongue-in-cheek comment from a self-described army brat who grew up speaking English, Russian and German is proof positive that I was naïve to think that I could get away with a single treatise –Hey, speak English (part one) – on language diversity. That reaction and others underscore how much of a contemporary issue this is. Following are a few more of those reactions starting with one from a reader whose parents migrated from Venezuela had to say:
“I’m fluent in English but I use every opportunity I can to speak Spanish. For the most part, I speak it because I feel I need to practice it and I want to get closer to the other person and show them I appreciate them. Of course, I only do this when the other person feels comfortable doing so (many don’t), and only when I feel certain that no one else is being left out. ”
As expected, not all readers of Part One agreed with my proposed solutions for handling language-diversity issues that can come up:
“Candidly Terry, there’s a dominate group mind-set that drives feelings of exclusion, i.e., ‘why don’t they speak English.’ In most cases it’s not about exclusion, it’s about privilege. As English speakers, we expect people to communicate with us in a language that’s easy for us to understand. That’s privilege.”
A number of readers advised caution about how words translate across languages and to avoid colloquialisms, which can cause translation dilemmas.
“I sent a fax to the European reservations center for my favorite hotel to make reservations for a couple of days in Paris and requested the ‘best available rate.’ The reply quoted a rate of $1900 USD per night. I responded with a question of whether there might not be a slightly less expensive accommodation and received a rate of $150 per night on a special. (This is a five-star property, so that was a really good rate.) It turns out that ‘best available rate’ means ‘lowest cost rate’ to an American, but ‘rate for best accommodation’ to a British person.”
As one person who marveled at two Israelis engaged in conversation put it, “I’m always so fascinated during my daily excursions to lunch during which it is rare that I don’t hear at least four different languages being spoken. In my mind that’s what makes our world so interesting and rewarding.”
Yes, “interesting” and “rewarding” – and, eh, maybe “woefully deficient!” What better ways to reframe the narrative about the challenges and opportunities posed by language diversity in our world and workplaces.