Out of exasperation, some will bellow the words, “Speak English!” Others? Well, my hunch is that most will roll their eyes and think but, wisely, not utter those words. And if you add to the angst the difficulty it can be when someone switches to another language, one you don’t know, the tension only escalates.
But wait, wait, wait!
Imagine for a moment feeling stupid despite the knowledge you have but couldn’t communicate because the predominate language spoken is not yours. So rather than risk further embarrassment you revert to the language you feel most comfortable with. Point being that the pendulum of empathy on both sides of the language conundrum swings both ways, does it not?
We need to speak a common language while living in the United States. Little disagreement there. And English is that common language. So the question is how on Earth do we bridge real sensitivities on both sides of the divide? A good place to start is to look at this on both sides.
On one side!
Although it’s admirable to be able to speak in more than one language, it is a lot more efficient to speak a common one. But when someone suddenly switches language during the course of an interaction, the risk of others feeling excluded looms large. With this skill comes personal responsibility. So if you must, explain with a statement like: “Sorry, I don’t mean to exclude you. It’s just that we speak in our native tongue when we see each other because it’s comfortable for us.” Failure do this will come across as rude and downright insensitive.
On the other side!
It helps to understand that in the same way you may codeswitch or “slip” into “language” others may not understand, jargon, sports metaphors for example, others will slip from time to time into their native language. So cut them some slack.
And remember that just because someone may be speaking in a language that you don’t understand don’t assume – hello! – that they’re talking about you!
Now if someone speaks a language you don’t understand, or switches in your company, speak up and express how you feel. “When you speak in another language, I feel left out,” is one possibility. Or, “I’d like to hear your idea. Can you say it in English too?”
And the last point is about the critical role of “language allies.” Imagine the power of saying, “Hey team, and thanks for speaking English during times we have to discuss business matters. I sure wish that I could speak French (or Spanish, etc.) like some of you do. I appreciate those of you who’ve made the effort to learn something about the languages and cultures of others on our team.”
In public settings try, “I/we greatly admire the fact that you speak another language. But unfortunately I/we don’t. So how about speaking English so that we can be sure to understand each other, okay?”
In the end, language diversity is on the rise and will continue to cause tension, both in the workplace and out in the public. So we need to figure out how to include people who speak more than one language as well as those who don’t. Awareness tied with empathy, respect and empathy are the answers … the only answers!