Multilingualism in the workplace: a policy for language democracy
Research document compiled by
LANGUAGE DEMOCRACY IN THE WORKPLACE
The three main home languages are thus Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans. Four medium-sized language groups can also be identified (North Sotho, English, Tswana and South Sotho) and four smaller language groups (Tsonga, Swazi, Venda and Ndebele).
In the same report (Schuring, 1993:16), it is indicated that 47,76% of the population have no speaking knowledge of English or Afrikaans (the former official languages). This, in effect, means that only 52,24% of the population can be reached through English and Afrikaans. When only English is used, only 42,35% of the population can be reached and only 42,31% can be reached when only Afrikaans is used. In the report, the census data between 1970 and 1991 are compared. These indicate that the basic language pattern in South Africa has remained relatively stable and that it can be expected to be more or less the same in ten years time.
According to the above statistics, organisations are confronted with the fact that different language groups are represented in their enterprises, and that no common language exists in which all the employees are simultaneously, and/or functionally, skilled (on an equal footing). Contrary to the reality of these facts, many organisations are implementing a policy of unilingualism (with English in particular the preferred language).
The above facts provided the stimulus for investigating the desirability and applicability of multilingualism in the workplace.
The objectives of this study are:
SECTION 1: LITERARY OVERVIEW OF MULTILINGUALISM
1.1 Communication in organisations
In this brief overview, the point of departure is adopted that language constitutes a medium of communication within an organisation. Before, however, attempting to discuss the role of language in an organisation, an overview of the functions of communication in organisations is required, as well as a brief summary of the convergence theory which serves as the basis for this study.
On the basis of various literature, the following functions of communication can be distinguished (see Koeleman 1992; Corrado 1993; Cummings, Long & Lewis 1988; Myers & Myers 1982; Neher 1997; Thayer 1968; Axley 1996; and Barnett & Thayer 1997):
Control information refers to the type of information which is needed in order to establish whether the organisations activities are being executed by the right person, in the right way, at the right moment. All non-automated planning is included in this information function. This type of information is not static and can be changed in keeping with the expectations and demands of clients with regard to the product which they would like (in terms of quality, safety, etc.) Control information entails the unrestricted flow of information both from and to the employees.
Language forms a critical element of each of the above-mentioned issues, for the purposes of ensuring a full understanding of the workplace.
1.1.2 Convergence theory
The convergence theory provides modern organisations with a sound point of departure for achieving the ideal of gaining the co-operation of all participants in the attempt to achieve a common goal. Although a variety of approaches towards organisational communication exists, the convergence theory places communication as central in the process of achieving this common goal.
The convergence model of communication is derived from the basic principles of information theory, cybernetics and general systems theory. The convergence model was developed by Kincaid in the late seventies and refined in the eighties. (This is a very simplistic and superficial summary of the theory, which can be studied in more detail in the following sources, inter alia: Hartley 1998; Kincaid 1979; Kincaid 1988; and Rogers & Kincaid 1981.)
According to this model, communication is viewed as a process in which two or more persons share information and arrive at greater common understanding in the process. In other words, convergence takes place and the participants move closer towards meaning (or the achievement of a common goal), rather than being further alienated from one another by a lack of understanding. Communication is thus seen as a process which is made possible by the differences which exist between the participants (without which there would not have been any need for them to communicate), as well as the process whereby such differences are reduced through the cybernetic mechanism of feedback. (The aim of communication is thus to share meaning and interpretation as well as possible). The model was elevated by Kincaid to the level of a social system by combining it with network theory. Individuals are seen as forming part of networks of social relationships which need to be both created and maintained through the exchange of information. Adequate opportunity for communication thus results in a better sharing of meaning by all the participants.
Within an organisational context, the ideal is that all participants or co-workers should strive for a common goal. According to the convergence theory, communication plays a key function in the best achievement of this ideal. When applied to organisations, this theory implies that, if communication in the organisation is as complete and effective as possible, the different role-players (employees) will increasingly share meaning and will also increasingly agree on the common goal. (This should also be seen in the light of the point of view of Thayer 1997 that communication chiefly concerns uniform translation and interpretation of information). However, it has been established that increased communication does not necessarily lead to the achievement of such a result. A number of communication obstacles exist, which often prevent convergence (focusing on the same aim based on common understanding) from taking place. Under certain conditions, communication can lead to divergence (which makes it increasingly impossible to strive towards mutual understanding and therefore to a common goal) rather than to convergence. The convergence theory stresses the importance of identifying communication obstacles so as to eliminate factors which cause divergence (that which prevents people from understanding one another better). Once such obstacles have been removed, convergence and the pursuance of common goals becomes possible.
In a South African study (Hartley 1998) in which the convergence theory was applied by identifying communication obstacles in the formal communication of the South African National Defence Force, it was evident that lack of understanding of another language was a major communication obstacle, particularly in respect of those persons whose home language was an African language. This situation promoted divergence, rather than drawing people together towards a common goal.
1.1.3 Language and communication in organisations
The requirements for good communication are universally valid. Good communication implies that messages must be interpreted in the way that they are intended. For example, organisations go to a great deal of trouble, and spend large sums, in order to formulate advertisements in such a way that defined target groups will be reached in an optimal fashion. Good communication with employees is just as critical for an organisation as an effective, target-oriented marketing campaign is for the sales of products, services or ideas. The more critical the message (for example, in terms of safety, productivity, maintenance and the employment of expensive equipment, motivation, etc.), the more important it is that the meaning and interpretation should be conveyed precisely in accordance with the intention thereof. In this process of exchange of meanings, language plays an important role in all the functions of communication as spelt out in 1.1.
Thus, when an organisation decides to introduce a policy of unilingualism within the organisation, this has enormous implications for employees who are not completely proficient in the designated language. The most important of these implications are:
1.2 Multilingualism: some international and local examples
Most countries (states) in the world have language minorities. Even countries such as the USA, Britain, China and France, which are traditionally regarded as unilingual countries, have various linguistic minority groups who insist on their language rights. The language issue also continually comprises an important item on the agenda of the European Union, which regularly poses new challenges to European co-operation (cf., for example, the collection of studies in Hoffmann 1996). In the USA, the presence (threat) of languages other than English led to the initiation of a campaign to have English declared the official language to date, no language has ever been declared the official language at national level, although English is the de facto national language (see Adams & Brink 1990 and McArthur 1993).
Despite efforts since the French revolution to make France unilingually French, there is still a variety of minority groups in France. Occitanian (with approximately 2 million speakers) which is spoken in the environs of Toulose is the language which, after French, is spoken most. Moreover, there are approximately 1 million German-speaking French citizens (in Alsace and its capital, Strasbourg), with other significant dialects such as Breton, Basque, Catalonian and Corsican. Since the seventies, Frances minorities have increasingly demanded more rights for their languages and cultures. As a result hereof, the government eventually permitted education in the dialects, and the process of empowerment is still gaining momentum (cf. Schott 1999).
In 1992, the European Council, to which 41 Western and Eastern European countries belong, accepted the European manifesto for regional and minority languages, in which education in minority languages as well as the right of every citizen to communicate with the authorities in his/her own language, were guaranteed.
In the 1961 census in India, 1 652 mother tongues were designated. In the Indian constitution, 18 official languages are recognised, with Hindi as the official language of the central government and English as the co-official language. Of the 18 official languages, the local majority language (or languages) is (are) then used in each region, together with Hindi, as the administrative language(s) and for official purposes such as education (Koul 1999).
For the purposes of this investigation, the Canadian examples are especially relevant, since the effects of language policy in that country have been thoroughly researched. In Canada, there are 17 million English-speaking persons, 6,7 million French speakers and 4,7 million persons who speak other languages, with approximately 150 languages being spoken in the country (including the indigenous languages spoken by approximately 186 000 people). However, the state can reach 99% of the population through the use of French and English (cf. Fourie 1999).
In Quebec (the French-speaking part of Canada), a calculated effort has been made on an ongoing basis, since the seventies of the twentieth century, to Gallicise (i.e. Frenchify) the region. The problem was that, although 93% of all French-speaking Canadians lived in the area, the language of the economy was English. Eventually, legislation had to be introduced in order to reverse the situation. Having English as the economic language kept the French-speaking people in the lowest strata of the labour sector and restricted mobility (cf. the study by dAngeljan 1984). After legislation had been adopted in order to improve the status of French including in the business world it was found that French-speaking persons experienced a notable improvement in all fields in respect of accessibility, services that were available to them, and general mobility in the economy (cf. Laporte 1984).
What was particularly notable was the fact that French-speaking employees experienced improved possibilities for promotion in the workplace, with a significant increase in the number of French-speaking persons employed in the managerial component of enterprises. It was found that the costs for the implementation of the policy were considerably smaller than had been anticipated, but that there were also unforeseen advantages. Laporte (1984:71-75) indicated that in some workplaces, the following advantages had been recorded as a result of the empowerment of French-speaking employees by allowing them to function in their own languages in the workplace:
The variety of indigenous languages is also protected and accommodated in the Canadian situation, and diverse mechanisms are employed to expand the more widely spoken indigenous languages and improve their status. At a functional level within organisations, the problem arises that some members of the indigenous population, for example, can speak only their own language. Collins (1992) proposes a solution for language differences in remote parts of Canada, where employees can often understand and speak only a local indigenous language. He proposes that data transfer should occur electronically and that the system of Distributed Language Translation should be used to carry out translation/interpreting directly into and from the indigenous language. (The translation/interpretation is carried out from a central locality, in the same way as interpreting facilities are employed during a conference the only difference is that the distance between the participants is greater with Distributed Language Translation.)
Moreover, it is a stated objective that the status of indigenous languages should be uplifted in such a manner that they will be used as educational languages, and receive recognition and be used at all levels of society.
Another declaration was formulated on the basis of the Intergovernmental Conference of Ministers on Language Policies in Africa. In this declaration, reference is made to the requirement that African languages should be optimally used in order to develop creativity and resourcefulness in the developmental activities of Africa. In 1999, the resolution to promote the use of indigenous languages in Africa was reaffirmed by the so-called Asmara Declaration, which was issued during a language conference in Eritrea.
In LANGTAGs (1996) report, renewed emphasis was placed on the fact that the indigenous languages in South Africa were not coming into their own, and that the promotion of all the official languages in South Africa in all fields should comprise a national objective. Webb (1995) and, specifically, Ribbens & Reagan (1995) confirm the problems surrounding the status of indigenous languages in South Africa, as well as the limited ability of English and Afrikaans to make effective communication possible with all employees. (Generally speaking, approximately only 50% of employees are able to communicate effectively in English and/or Afrikaans).
PANSALB (Pan South African Language Board)
SECTION 2: LIMITED EMPIRICAL STUDY
Various members of the MWU experienced problems with their employers in respect of the right to use their own home languages in their work situations. The tendency of various industries is to use English on an increasingly unilingual basis, in conflict with the Constitution. In the light hereof, the MWU resolved to institute an investigation into the possibility of a multilingual policy in the workplace.
2.2 Nature of the problem
No model for a multilingual policy in the work situation was available. There is no certainty in respect of the fundamental principles of such a policy, or the aspects which should receive attention in a policy of this nature.
The aims of the investigation in respect of a multilingual policy for the work situation are:
2.4 Research methods and techniques
The following research methods and techniques were used:
Points of departure
2.6 Guidelines for a language policy
The researchers (and the MWU) cannot compile a ready-made policy which can simply be applied as such in every organisation. Every organisation has unique characteristics which will need to be taken into account during the compilation of that organisations language policy. What is, in fact, offered is a set of guidelines, which can be used by an organisation in the compilation of a language policy. Moreover, notes are provided concerning the implications and implementation of the proposed guidelines.
The most important findings are that a multilingual policy is of value to both employers and employees, and that a democratic multilingual policy in the workplace is both possible and practically feasible. The most important condition for a successful multilingual policy is that the will and desire to introduce such a policy should be present in all those who are involved.
SECTION 3: CONCLUSIONS
From the above, the following conclusions can be drawn in respect of multilingualism in South African organisations:
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ANNEXURE 1: A POLICY FOR LANGUAGE DEMOCRACY IN THE WORKPLACE
In order to establish a practically feasible and affordable multilingual policy, organisations in the private and public sectors can make use of the following guidelines:
ANNEXURE 2: MOTIVATION: A POLICY FOR LANGUAGE DEMOCRACY IN THE WORKPLACE
From the literature (cf. the separate literature study), it is evident that effective communication within the organisation is particularly concerned with:
In all five of the above-mentioned functions of communication within organisations, the most important requirement is that communication should result in the optimal transfer of understanding. Language plays a very important role in this process, in terms of promoting productivity, job satisfaction and the pursuing of common goals within the organisation. A policy of unilingualism which is forced (by means of coercion) on unwilling employees may lead to a disruption of the communication processes involved in all these functions. As a consequence hereof, an organisation may pay dearly in terms of misunderstandings, safety-related issues, productivity and unmotivated workers who passively (and sometimes even actively) sabotage the organisation. From the literature, it is evident that three language-related issues, in particular, are relevant in the workplace:
The proposed policy for language democracy in the workplace is aimed at replacing the element of force (which has a particular potential to lead to dissatisfaction) with a system of language flexibility that activates positive forces within the organisation, making it possible to effectuate optimal understanding. On the basis of the limited empirical study, a number of critical communication issues surrounding language usage in the workplace were identified.
The most important points of departure for the proposed policy which came to the fore as a result of the investigation were:
The motivation for the various subsections of the proposed policy is provided below. The numbering corresponds with that of the subsections in the proposed policy:
1 Constitution of the RSA
In the Constitution, a policy for multilingualism is expounded. In order to adhere to the Constitution, the policy for multilingualism should be followed by all organisations, both in respect of the letter and the spirit thereof. PANSALB was founded by virtue of the Constitution in order to ensure that these provisions of the Constitution were adhered to. The proposed policy for language democracy is in keeping with various pronouncements and prescriptions of PANSALB concerning the language policies of various organisations (cf. the exposition thereof in the literature review). Moreover, the provisions of the Constitution are also in keeping with international tendencies and, specifically, with developments in respect of indigenous languages in Africa (cf., for example, the OAUs Language Plan of Action for Africa and the language issues which comprised part of the Declaration compiled after the Intergovernmental Conference of Ministers on Language Policies in Africa, which was held in Harare).
2 Flexible multilingualism
The second point of departure of the proposed policy corresponds almost word for word with the provisions proposed in the Constitution (as they have been made applicable to organisations in this investigation). The core of this point of departure is the proposal that a rigid approach to language policy should be avoided. Flexibility in the language policies of organisations must be made possible by considering the various factors involved in the determination of a language policy. However, these factors may not be used in an attempt to justify the institution of a unilingual language policy.
Any language policy has cost implications. A policy of unilingualism, too, costs an organisation money, for example, in terms of losses in respect of training and production (as a result of misunderstandings, demotivation of dissatisfied employees, safety hazards, etc.). For the first time in the language controversy, an affordable proposal is being made in this proposed policy in order to finance a policy of multilingualism.
The formula of 0,1% of the salary budget of an organisation provides a clear guideline as to how widely a policy of multilingualism can be implemented. The implementation of this guideline can be calculated as follows, for example:
Depending on qualifications and experience, one language worker costs approximately R120 000 per annum. Other costs may amount to R60 000 per annum (e.g., for interpreters for disciplinary hearings, contracting out of translation work, dictionaries, computers, computer programmes, etc.). At 0.1% of the salary account and an average salary of R60 000, there should be 3 000 employees in order to make it possible to afford a full-time language worker. Organisations with fewer than 3 000 employees will have to farm out their translation and interpreting work. The smaller the organisation, the smaller the amount available for language-related matters. For an organisation with 100 employees, the language budget will amount to only R6 000. Large organisations with tens of thousands of employees will be able to afford a language office with facilities for all eleven languages, and even for other additional languages, to deal with all the language-related matters discussed under paragraphs 5.1 to 5.14 of the proposed policy. Smaller organisations will be able to farm out translation work in respect of only a few important documents, for example. In the case of a full-time language worker, the budget should also make provision for an office, furnishings, a computer, computer programmes, dictionaries, a telephone, etc.
An important principle would thus be to accommodate all the languages which are indicated by employees as being the languages of their choice. There is therefore room in any organisation for employees to be able to use their chosen language freely within the framework of the policy. However, resources can be allocated on a proportional basis. To have entries on salary slips translated on a once-off basis into the preferred language of an employee, for example, is a small price to pay for the goodwill which will thereby be generated.
4 Language committee
The appointment of a language committee in every organisation is important, since a language policy does not develop of itself. It is also of decisive importance that a proposed language policy should not be one-sidedly enforced in an organisation, but that it should be the result of negotiations between the employer and employees by means of customary procedures (for example, the existing forums). Like any ombudsman, a language committee has no disciplinary powers. However, the committee should remain abreast of problems and bring them to the attention of the representative forum. This will also enable the committee to make meaningful suggestions for the further consolidation and/or improvement of the language policy.
5 Critical issues in order of priority
In this section of the proposal, the practical implementation of the language policy is dealt with. In the investigation, specific priorities were identified to address critical issues surrounding the use of language within organisations. The funds which can be expended in accordance with the guideline of 0,1% of the salary account will determine the degree to which the proposed policy can be implemented. The following matters have been indicated in order of priority:
5.1 Determination of language preference
On the basis of the results of the survey, language preferences can be determined for the organisation with due consideration of the other aspects mentioned. As envisaged in the Constitution, at least the first two languages on the list of preferences, as well as any additional languages as far as the budget guideline permits this, should be indicated as the preferred languages of the organisation. The available resources are thus a determinative factor in respect of the degree to which different language preferences can be accommodated within an organisation. The principle followed is that all languages which are indicated as preferred languages by employees should be accommodated within the organisation, but that resources should be proportionally allocated. (An example in this regard would be for full-time translators to translate most policy documents, e-mail notices, training material, etc., into the first three preferred languages, within the budgeted framework in a specific organisation. A few articles in the staff news-sheet through the course of the year, standard letters from the personnel department and entries on salary slips in respect of eight other languages, can be translated by means of the contracting out of translation work.)
5.2 Disciplinary hearings
5.3 Installation of a language desk
5.4 to 5.8: Language and training
The aim should always be to find a feasible solution. The more important the hearing, test, interview or document is for the career of the employee, the more effort should be made to ensure that the employee is not subjected to conscious or unconscious discrimination on the basis of his or her language proficiency. A test or interview on subject competency should not be a disguised language test. On the other hand, the above implies that knowledge of more than one of the preferred languages of the organisation (also in respect of regional centres) should comprise an important consideration in the screening and appointment of language workers, training officers and personnel officers.
In the training and appointment of employees, an important principle comes into play, namely that a distinction should be made between work proficiency and language proficiency. In cases where language skills constitute a critical dimension in a task or specific post, a separate language proficiency test should be applied in order to determine a candidates suitability for an appointment.
5.9 Existing practices
5.10 and 5.11 Multilingual meetings/oral communication
Both the organisation and the individual employees are expected to be accommodating the organisation may not force an employee to speak only one language, while the employee has a responsibility to ensure that a summary, at least, is made available in the language of the meeting.
5.12 Multilingual documents
5.13 Communication from employees
5.14 External communication
ANNEXURE 3: GUIDELINES FOR THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE POLICY FOR LANGUAGE DEMOCRACY IN THE WORKPLACE
By way of illustration of these guidelines, a hypothetical distinction is drawn on a number of occasions between large and smaller organisations. For the purposes of these guidelines, a large enterprise will hypothetically be assumed to have 40 000 employees and to be comprised of several centres distributed over various provinces, and a small enterprise to have 350 employees in a single centre.
Budget for the implementation of the language policy
The basic point of departure of the implementation of the policy is that every employees preferred language should be accommodated within the organisation. However, resources can be allocated on the basis of what can be afforded.
Survey in order to determine language preferences
Both large and smaller organisations may carry out a survey in order to determine the language preference of each individual employee. The employees personal preference is noted in his/her personnel records (on computer), to serve as the language of correspondence for that particular employee. The ideal is to use every employees preferred language in personal correspondence specifically in respect of standard documents such as letters of appointment, promotions or increases, salary slips and so on. It is relatively cheap to have such documents translated on a once-off basis, and then merely to incorporate specific particulars by means of computer technology.
The results of the survey are then calculated for the organisation as a whole, as well as for each centre. The various language preferences are then arranged in sequence, from the highest to the lowest. (The organisation can also consider the results of the survey in the determination of a first language choice for the organisation as a whole cf. the matters which must be considered under Point 2 of the policy.) The language committee can then make a proposal to the existing negotiation forums as to how many of the preferred languages can be fully/partially afforded. Depending on how much money is available, for example, expenses in respect of the first four preferred languages can be fully defrayed within the organisation, along with restricted functions in respect of the remaining languages (an occasional article in the staff news-sheet, salary slips in the chosen language, etc.).
Language offices / desks
The appointed language committee proposes the following budget, which can be negotiated via the usual forums:
Communication in preferred languages
Large and small organisations
The following language issues do not have any financial implications and can therefore be implemented without difficulty:
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