Language: the Cinderella of the DEI conversation

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Language is an often underestimated part of the DEI conversation, writes Mandy Collins.

I read (and write) many thought leadership articles by HR practitioners, and in all the discussions of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) one factor never seems to come up, or if it does, only very occasionally: language.

You will most often read about race, gender, LGBTQIA+, disability, age and generational markers of DEI. And yet, no one is talking about language in a country with 11 official languages, which may have an additional one soon. Earlier this year, the Minister of Justice and Correctional services gazetted a constitutional amendment for public comment, which will make South African Sign Language (SASL) an official language.

So, why do we need to consider language? Well, depending on who you ask, about 8 percent to 9 percent of South Africans count English as their mother tongue. Let’s call it 10 percent for a round number. Yet English is the unofficial language of business in South Africa.

Obviously, there are very good reasons for that, especially since much of the global economy runs on English, but it also creates some challenges. Because in a situation where only 10 percent of the population speaks the language of business, around 90 percent of your workforce is immediately on the back foot when it comes to communication at work.

This is known as a language barrier. And it has consequences for your business. Language barriers like this can lead to:

  • miscommunication;
  • misunderstanding of instructions;
  • lack of confidence;
  • decreased productivity;
  • difficulty during group collaboration;
  • feelings that one is not respected;
  • cultural friction.

Language is a vital building block for creating belonging, and is an often underestimated part of the DEI conversation. Because language is about so much more than just the words we use to speak to each other – it’s an important part of your employees’ identity, worldview and culture.

Of course, many companies invest in training for people who struggle with English. But while that might solve some of your practical communication problems, it’s not the whole picture. And it can make those who don’t count English as their mother tongue feel that their language – and by extension their identity, worldview and culture – are “less than” in some way.

This is about so much more than just the nuts and bolts of communication. It’s also an opportunity to provide a much richer employee experience by embracing language diversity in your organisation – and fostering greater belonging in the process.

How? Here are some ideas:

  1. Discuss cultural ideas and differences – during company-wide forums, invite employees to share something about their culture, including what is considered rude or disrespectful. Heritage Day is a convenient hook to hang this on, but it should really be discussed all year round.
  2.  During fraught conversations – such as union meetings, or disciplinary hearings – consider hiring an interpreter, so that employees who don’t speak English as their mother tongue can express themselves more clearly.
  3. Translate important policy documents into all of the main languages spoken by your employees.
    Institute a plain English policy for all company communications – and back it up with interventions such as a style guide and plain English training. This will also make external communication to clients and customers clearer, and less likely to be misunderstood.
  4. Educate managers to be aware of the following cultural attributes that come with languages, and which may differ among diverse employees:
  • dress code;
  • customs;
  • food;
  • gestures/body language;
  • religious practices; and
  • social values.

5.Make sure important safety information is communicated in as many languages as possible.
Ensure your learning and development material is accessible to second language speakers.
6.Train English mother tongue speakers to be sensitive to the challenges their colleagues are facing – remind them that if they were transplanted to another country and had to communicate in their second language at work, they would face similar obstacles.

If there’s a large cohort of speakers of a particular language, consider offering free lessons to English speakers so they can learn that language and communicate with their colleagues. This is even a form of nation-building.
In all of the above, consider any employees with hearing disabilities who might need a SASL interpreter.

Linguistic diversity is something to be celebrated – not tolerated. Keeping our indigenous languages alive is an important part of preserving and honouring many South Africans’ heritage.

When a language dies, so much dies with it – including many people’s connection to their identity and their wellbeing. Remember, wellbeing isn’t just about physical health. It’s also about psychosocial health. And a healthy workforce makes for a healthy organisation.

Celebrating multilingualism comes with great benefits – it can make communication much smoother, boost confidence, enable productivity, build team cohesion, enhance wellbeing, and foster belonging, all of which will feed positively into your organisation’s success.

And PS: when you’re ready to have the next conversation, let’s talk about how embracing language diversity might have positive outcomes for your customers too.


Mandy Collins is the director of Mandy Collins and Associates, a content agency and consultancy that provides writing, editing and proofreading services and advice, as well as business writing training.

 

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