Linguistic diversity encouraged in the workplace

According to Statistics Canada, as of 2016 the proportion of workers who use more than one language at work has risen slightly from 2006, hovering at around 15.4%.However, the use of languages other than English or French accounts for only 5%, with less than 2% of the country using languages other than English or French “predominantly”.

The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) will be hosting a webinar on linguistic diversity in Canadian workplaces on Apr. 20. The CCDI is a charity/organization that works with businesses on multiple fronts, through research initiatives, seminars, and more, on how best to promote and encourage diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

For Anne-Marie Pham, executive director of the CCDI, pursuing linguistic diversity in the workplace is as important an endeavour as it is multifaceted. While the numbers themselves didn’t change substantially between 2006 and 2016, Pham says employers seem generally more willing to embrace linguistic diversity than they did 10 years ago.

“[Our employer partners] are seeing an increasing need to better understand, what is linguistic diversity in the workplace? What is the current Canadian landscape in terms of both the growth of linguistic diversity in the workforce, and also understanding some of the language policies that exist in Canada,” says Pham. “They are creating a culture that is more accepting and open-minded when it comes to linguistic diversity in the workplace.”

Making use of linguistic diversity

However, it’s difficult to know the extent to which this enthusiasm for diversity has translated into policy implementation since, as Pham notes, one of the key roadblocks to implementing linguistic diversity is understanding how to go about it.

“I think one of the challenges is that people don’t know where to start. They get a little bit overwhelmed by all of the possibilities, given the lack of capacity they may have,” says Pham. “So, it’s about prioritizing and understanding what fits within your broader business priorities, operations, and making the link clear. If you don’t talk about it, if you don’t have a business case, people won’t understand why you’re doing it.”

Indeed, for companies eager to promote linguistic diversity, it can be difficult to know where to begin, especially when the term encompasses such a broad range of policies, attitudes, and efforts.

Because of this, Pham says that implementing linguistic diversity will look different in every workplace, depending on a multitude of factors. These include the size of the business, the capacity of a business to implement bilingual or multilingual features and services, the demands of its client base, whether it is a business that works with the general public, and many more factors.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but it could look like individuals feeling that they can be authentic, that they can use different languages at work as long as it doesn’t impact their performance and the ability to be understood by others. Or it could be understanding within your policies and practices when it is important to use the common language at work and when there are opportunities for people to use linguistic diversity,” says Pham.

Inclusion within the workplace

Indeed, when it comes to external operations, implementing linguistic diversity will look different for every business. It can be harder for smaller businesses and businesses with more stringent operational requirements to put a premium on multilingual service, for example.

“We don’t expect all organizations to do everything at the same time, and there’s always the context that needs to be considered,” says Pham. “A small organization may not have the capacity to fully hire linguistically diverse individuals, even though they could have a much broader market by tapping into linguistically diverse potential clients. So, we always have to take the context into consideration, but not lose sight of the long-term vision.”

For companies eager to promote linguistic diversity, it can be difficult to know where to begin.

That said, while every business cannot commit to a more formal, external pursuit of linguistic diversity, encouraging it internally within a workplace can always be a priority. Pham says that promoting linguistic diversity within a business not only promotes workplace cohesion but is also important to rooting out negative cultural biases or exclusionary tendencies.

“I think that we really want to help people to understand the potential negative impact of having a lack of linguistic diversity [internally]. It leads to exclusion, which leads to a bias in the workplace, and even a sense of superiority based on how well one speaks a good main language, or has the better accent compared to other people. So, it’s about finding the potential judgements that we may have on people based on their language proficiencies and accents that they have,” says Pham.

In all, whether internally or externally, Pham encourages businesses to continue to pursue linguistic diversity however they can, as the values that it engenders are nothing short of invaluable.

“There is a critical role for communication at work that is inclusive. And the outcome of inclusive communication, whether it’s in English, French, or another language that is being used by colleagues at work, is respect and trust. So, at the end of the day, it feels like they belong to the organization, and there’s something of value that they can bring to the organization,” says Pham.