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Multilingualism in the workplace: a policy for language democracy

Research document compiled by
  • Die Taalsekretariaat
  • Doelstelling
    • Dr Danie du Plessis
      Department of Communication, UNISA

    • Dr Gerard Schuring

      30 June 2000

    • With due recognition to Dr Carel Prinsloo and the Stigting vir Afrikaans for their contribution.


    Introductory comments

    Diversity is characteristic of South Africa. This is also particularly true in respect of language diversity. According to the national census of 1991, the mother tongue speakers of the respective language groups can be represented as follows, in terms of the total population (Schuring, 1993:4):

      Zulu 21,96%
      Xhosa 17,03%
      Afrikaans 15,03%
      North Sotho 9,64%
      English 9,01%
      Tswana 8,59%
      South Sotho 6,73%
      Tsonga 4,35%
      Swazi 2,57%
      Venda 2,22%
      Ndebele 1,55%
      Other 1,31%

    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:

    1. to make suggestions as to how multilingualism can be accommodated and promoted functionally within organisations;
    2. to indicate the reasons why a policy of multilingualism should be instituted;
    3. to identify factors which influence multilingualism in the workplace; and
    4. to indicate tendencies in respect of multilingualism in South Africa, Africa and globally.


    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.

    1.1.1 Functions

    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):

    • Task information
      Each organisation has a primary task: to offer a product or service to the consumers thereof. In order to form part of this process, the participating employees need to have different types of information at their disposal. Within this particular context, work instruction is probably the most important information required, but a further distinction can be made between other forms of information such as process information, commercial information and decision-making information. Thayer (1997) believes that the main concern is not the actual information received, but the way in which this information is understood by its recipients; in other words, the interpretation thereof constitutes an important element of communication within the workplace.
      • Work instruction
        By means of this process, the worker is informed as to what is expected of him/her (this information may be considered to be a job description). Stated differently, work instruction thus provides the worker, inter alia, with certainty as to what has to be done, how it has to be done and also when a task has to be undertaken and completed.
      • Process information
        Workers are appointed on the assumption that they have the necessary knowledge and experience of the subject field to be able to execute a specific task (for which they are in fact being appointed). The organisation, however, also needs to introduce the worker to the various tasks which will be expected of him/her in the production process. Aspects such as the required procedures and processes to be followed and requirements with regard to quality and safety are usually unique to each organisation.
      • Commercial information
        In an era of participatory decision-making, as well as of new concepts such as information management and chaos theory (see for example the essays in Barnett & Thayer 1997), it is imperative that all employees should be informed on commercial aspects such as product information, selling prices, marketing, price determination and quality requirements (also in respect of market competitors) in order to ensure the meaningful involvement of all parties concerned in the mission of the organisation.
      • Decision-making information
        Employees are dependent on information in order to make decisions regarding their own roles within the organisation, as well as regarding the tasks at hand. Information is also required for the identification of problems and the correct interpretation thereof. This may be regarded as decision-making information. Management requires the same information in order to take decisions. Feedback from employees on all levels is an important source of information for the management within an organisation. It is for this reason that the flow of information from the bottom to the top structures should not be inhibited.

    • Control information
      Control information refers to the type of information which is needed in order to establish whether the organisation’s 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.

    • Policy information
      Organisations are often confronted with complaints from employees on policy issues (including production policy, conditions of employment, organisational culture, etc.), as well as on changes made to policy. Management often tends to take decisions which employees have to execute, without affording the latter the opportunity to gain an understanding as to the reason or motivation for the decision. Research has shown that employees have a definite need to grasp the reasons for following a particular policy, and to understand why decisions, which may affect them, are being taken. Even simple issues, such as deductions which are reflected on salary slips, may not be understood and can become a source of concern amongst employees. In an American study (cf. Koeleman 1992), employees identified the following ten information issues as being of importance to them (listed in order of importance):
      1. policy planning of the organisation
      2. improvement of productivity
      3. personnel policy
      4. task information
      5. promotion possibilities
      6. influence of external events on the work of the employee
      7. how the employee’s job fits into the organisation
      8. activities outside the employee’s division
      9. placement in respect of competitive organisations
      10. personnel distribution within the organisation.

      Language forms a critical element of each of the above-mentioned issues, for the purposes of ensuring a full understanding of the workplace.

    • Motivational information
      Viewed simplistically, motivation depends mainly on two factors, namely the organisation and the actual person himself/herself. In the instance of the individual employee, factors such as mentality, personality, age, and style of approach to problems, play a role. Employees have different expectations of their work — some are looking for camaraderie, others are ambitious and still others are in need of receiving some form of reward or recognition. On the other hand, the organisation itself also plays a role in respect of motivation. Of significance here are factors such as the work content, leadership style and the way personnel members are organised within the structure of the institution. Workers need to receive a measure of recognition and to feel that they are being treated with respect in the workplace. This invariably implies the need for a two-way channel of communication between the individual employee and the organisation. Obviously, communication and understanding constitute the most critical elements of this process.

    • Training
      Although the training of employees forms an integral part of all of the above-mentioned functions, it will be dealt with separately, since training may be regarded as the key to the empowerment of employees. It enables them to fulfil an optimal role within the organisation (see those studies included in the work of Cenoz & Genesee, 1998). The challenge with which organisations are faced, however, is to provide the most effective form of training (which is relatively expensive). Mother tongue instruction is generally accepted as being the most effective medium of instruction and training (see Majhanovich 1992), as well as a manner of empowering members of language minorities (see, for example, the study by Gowen 1992 — especially pp. 17 & 18; and also Kerka 1992). Providing instruction and training in the individual’s home language also reduces the time required to complete the training, and increases understanding of the subject being taught. (Also see the report of LANGTAG 1996).

    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
    Before reviewing the role of communication in organisations more closely, two important language issues need to be taken into account:

    • One of the most prominent views on language can be found in the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” (see, for example, Hoijer 1994). According to this hypothesis, language is more than just an aid or tool to report on people’s experiences — in actual fact, language is a manner of defining experiences and reality. Language and thought are very closely related. The linguistic system which applies to each language helps to shape ideas, and serves as a guide to help the individual to structure his/her thoughts in an attempt to order the multitude of impressions with which he/she is confronted. Through language, the perceptions of people as to what is happening around them and the meaning which they attach to these events, are given form (see also Clyne 1991).
    • Human cultures and thought patterns are manifested in language. Lieberman (1994) has shown that different languages are able to stimulate different patterns of cognitive thought, problem-solving strategies and interaction between the brain hemispheres. The result hereof is that different languages lead to a variety of thought patterns and ways of reasoning which differ from language group to language group (also refer to the study by Clyne 1991). Aagen (1993) in turn argues that common recognition and respect for other cultures (and language as an inherent key element of culture) are a prerequisite for successful intercultural co-existence, since these constitute the essence of what it means to be human. Dr Kjell Herberts of the Abo Akademi University in Finland stated at a conference that diversity of language and culture can lead to conflict in societies where there is a lack of respect for differences. Refusal to accept diversity results in disunity and other problems (Fourie 1999).

    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:

    • a potential for misunderstandings
    • safety risks
    • a sharp drop in the transfer of meaning
    • disempowerment of employees who are not proficient in the designated language, and who therefore cannot fully share in the thinking patterns and cognitive demands, etc., which are presupposed
    • the effective withholding of information from employees, since they do not have access to that information, as a result of an inability to understand it
    • denial of the dignity of employees, since their language and, by implication, also their culture, are deemed to be inferior
    • restriction of the employees’ ability to communicate with their supervisors and management, which necessarily reflects negatively on their abilities
    • demotivation, which can lead to passive and even active sabotage of equipment, etc.

    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, France’s 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 d’Angeljan 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:

    • better management-employee relations
    • improved job satisfaction and morale among employees
    • fewer accidents in the workplace
    • better corporate identification with employers
    • more effective communication
    • improved productivity and work motivation
    • more creativity, participation and initiative (particularly among managers)
    • fewer problems with personnel recruitment (particularly at management level)

    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.)

    As in Europe, a movement is also under way in Africa to promote the status and use of indigenous languages. In 1986, the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) adopted a so-called “Language Plan of Action for Africa”, in which it was declared that:

      Ö language is at the heart of a people’s culture and Ö [we are] Ö further convinced that, in accordance with the provisions of the Cultural Charter for Africa, the cultural advancement of the African peoples and the acceleration of their economic and social development will not be possible without harnessing in a practical manner indigenous African languages in that advancement and development.

    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 LANGTAG’s (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)
    PANSALB was established by virtue of the Constitution with a view to creating favourable conditions for the development and use of all of the official (and other) languages, and also to promote them specifically. Thus, PANSALB does not only fulfil a type of watchdog function, but also takes its own proactive steps to carry out its mandate. Charges have already been lodged with PANSALB, by the MWU and others, against various enterprises, precisely because their language policies do not promote the objectives as stated in the Constitution. Examples of PANSALB rulings which were published in the Government Gazette, are as follows:

    • The well-known “Rautenbach” case, in which it was ruled that Spoornet had acted in violation of the Constitution by instructing its personnel to make all official communications in English only. PANSALB also ruled that no institution should be permitted to prohibit speakers of the same language from communicating with each other in their own language.
    • The South African Post Office violated the terms of Section 6 of the Constitution by means of the introduction of a language policy in terms of which it was stipulated that all formal business within the South African Post Office must be conducted in English only, and that all signboards were to be in English only. PANSALB ruled that the language rights of the Post Office’s employees and clients had thereby been violated, and the Post Office was instructed to promote multilingualism by amending the existing language policy and by acting in a more accommodating manner in respect of multilingualism. The Post Office was also instructed to consult its employees in the compilation of a different language policy.
    • The MWU laid a charge against ESKOM in respect of external communication, which was conducted only in English. ESKOM was also unable to produce a language policy on request. PANSALB ruled that ESKOM’s language policy was in conflict with the policy of multilingualism prescribed by the Constitution; did not honour the spirit of the language clause; and violated the language rights of South African consumers. PANSALB also ruled that the public were entitled to expect ESKOM, as a public entity, to take their language preferences into account.
    • The Department of Public Works formulated an official language policy which entailed that English should be the only language used for internal as well as external communication. After a complaint was lodged by the MWU, PANSALB ruled that the policy was in conflict with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, and instructed the Department:

      To revoke the instructions issued to employees which were in conflict with the normative guidelines as contained in the Constitution, 1996;

      1. to investigate the language preferences of staff and clients by means of a survey, and thereafter to compile a language policy -

        1. which made provision for the equal and unhampered use of at least two official languages;
        2. which did not preclude the use of any language;
        3. which did not contain any elements of discrimination;
        4. which did not curtail the rights and status of Afrikaans; and
        5. which promoted effectiveness in respect of the rendering of services and took the preferences of clients and staff into account;

      2. to finalise the policy after the Board had been consulted; and

      3. to refrain from intimidating employees on the basis of their language preference.

      However, PANSALB currently has the power only to make recommendations. PANSALB decisions are therefore not enforceable.


    2.1 Background

    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.

    2.3 Objectives

    The aims of the investigation in respect of a multilingual policy for the work situation are:

    1. to determine the point of departure for such a policy;
    2. to determine the advantages and disadvantages of such a policy;
    3. to identify typical communication patterns in the work situation; and
    4. to test a draft policy with employees.

    2.4 Research methods and techniques

    The following research methods and techniques were used:

    1. Consultations with MWU representatives in respect of the points of departure: The proposal of the two researchers, namely to follow the same points of departure as those contained in the language policy in the Constitution, was adopted.
    2. Literature study: A study of relevant literature was carried out, concerning the advantages and disadvantages of a multilingual policy in the work situation.
    3. Group interview 1: An exploratory group interview lasting three hours was conducted with MWU representatives on the typical communication patterns in the workplace.
    4. Draft policy: On the basis of the particulars collected by means of the above-mentioned three methods, a draft policy was compiled.
    5. Group interview 2: The draft policy was made available to MWU representatives who work at various large enterprises. The organisations in respect of which they have first-hand knowledge are: Iscor, Eskom, SASOL, Anglogold and Telkom. The typical communication patterns were, in turn, discussed with this group, as well as the practical feasibility of every aspect of the proposed policy.

    2.5 Findings

    Points of departure
    The basic point of departure is the multilingual policy in the Constitution. In the compilation and design of a language policy, the following factors should be taken into account:

    1. existing language usage
    2. feasibility
    3. costs (for the employer)
    4. local and regional circumstances
    5. the needs and language preferences of the employees
    6. respect for language diversity.

    Communication patterns
    The typical and critical communication patterns in the work situation are as follows:

    1. Disciplinary hearings: Communication between the accused employee and the other persons present. Trade unions usually negotiate for the presence of interpreters where necessary.
    2. Training in a group context: Communication between the instructor and the learners by means of manuals and written and oral tests.
    3. Interviews for vacant posts: Communication between the applicant and representatives of the employer by means of letters of appointment and of promotion.
    4. Meetings: Communication between speakers and audiences (employees) and between members of an audience and the chairperson/speaker(s).
    5. Oral communication between the team leader and team members.
    6. Reports and other documents compiled by an employee and directed to the sectional head(s) of the employer, personnel office and other sections.
    7. Salary slips and other documents compiled by the organisation and directed personally to the employee.
    8. General written communication such as staff news-sheets and circular letters directed to employees. The extent of the distribution may vary from document to document: the documents may be conveyed only to the employees of a specific section, or to everyone in the organisation.

    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 organisation’s 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.


    From the above, the following conclusions can be drawn in respect of multilingualism in South African organisations:

    • The multilingual character of the workers’ corps and the inability of one (or even two languages) to serve as a common language (or languages) which is (are) understood by all employees, render a policy of multilingualism a necessity, and not a mere luxury;
    • The requirements that are set for effective organisational communication imply that a policy of multilingualism for organisations would be beneficial, and that a policy of unilingualism would be to the detriment of productivity, safety and the motivation of employees;
    • The review on multilingualism elsewhere in the world indicates that the recognition of multilingualism is a modern tendency which is increasingly enjoying attention. Language and cultural diversity may lead to conflict in societies where there is no respect for differences. The refusal of persons to accept diversity leads to problems and disunity;
    • The experience of Quebec in Canada indicates that there are concrete benefits for both the organisation and the employees if their mother tongues are accommodated;
    • The Constitution of the RSA prescribes (in both the letter and the spirit) that multilingualism should not merely be tolerated, but that it should be actively promoted. It thus constitutes a democratic act on the part of organisations when they apply a policy of multilingualism — and thereby adhere to the Constitution. PANSALB has issued various rulings which confirm this principle.
    • The limited empirical study indicates that a practically feasible policy of multilingualism is possible and affordable within any organisation. The proposed policy for language democracy is based on the point of departure of a flexible handling of language policy, with the emphasis on respect for the language preferences of employees. The element of coercion in the compulsory use of a single language for communication within organisations is removed, leaving employees with the freedom to make use of the language(s) of their preference.


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    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:

    1. The basic guideline is the multilingual policy as set out in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996, as amended). All efforts to maintain or introduce a unilingual policy are discriminatory in nature, and in conflict with the Constitution.

    2. As set out in the Constitution, the following factors should be taken into account in the design and implementation of a multilingual policy:
      • existing language usage;
      • feasibility;
      • costs;
      • local and regional circumstances;
      • the needs and language preferences of the employees; and
      • the principle of no discrimination, but rather a respect for language diversity.

      These factors are not to be used as “escape clauses” for the introduction of a unilingual policy, but are meant to facilitate a flexible approach to the complex multilingual situation.

    3. Budget annually for the introduction and consolidation of a multilingual policy, for example, in terms of an amount equal to 0.1% (nil point one percent) of the salary account. The costs are not recovered from the employees, but comprise current expenditure, which is included, like any other expenditure, in the calculation of taxation.

    4. Appoint a language committee to manage the language-related affairs of the organisation, in keeping with the priority list below. This entails that the committee should compile a draft language policy and a detailed budget (within the 0.1% limit and in keeping with the priority list), as a point of departure for negotiations between the employer and employees. The committee can also investigate all complaints in respect of non-adherence to the language policy within the organisation. The policy can be revised every three years.

    5. The available funds should be employed, in order of priority, for the following language-related matters:

        5.1 The determination of every employee’s language preference and, on the basis thereof, that of the organisation as a whole. An organisation should choose at least the first two languages on the list, as well as additional languages as permitted by the above-mentioned budget. The language preference list may vary from place to place and from region to region. The results of the survey may not be misused in order to justify a unilingual policy. Even if the large majority are in favour of a particular language, there will still be room, and funds, for the institution of a multilingual policy.

        5.2 The defraying of costs for interpreting services during a disciplinary hearing if the employee concerned requests an interpreter. If possible, the proceedings should be in the language preferred by the accused.

        5.3 The establishment of a language desk or language office in every organisation, preferably in collaboration with the training staff and the above-mentioned language committee. The tasks of the part-time/full-time language worker(s) will entail giving execution to the language-related matters on the list of priorities, or assisting in the execution thereof.

        5.4 The taking of written tests/examinations in the language of the learner’s choice where this is practically feasible.

        5.5 The taking of oral and/or practical tests/examinations in the language of the learner’s choice where this is practically feasible.

        5.6 The conducting of interviews with internal and external applicants for vacant posts in the language of each applicant’s choice, where practically feasible.

        5.7 The provision of training in the language of the learners’ choice where practically possible, in the following order of priority:

        • The provision of summaries and the clarification of key concepts in one or more additional preferred languages (both written and oral).
        • The provision of translated manuals in one or more additional preferred languages.
        • The organisation of classes/lessons in one or more of the additional preferred languages.

        5.8 Language training should be paid for from the budget for training, and not from the language budget. The provision of language training may not be discriminatory in nature, in the sense of opportunities being provided to learn one specific language only. Employees should be able to choose between two or more languages.

        5.9 The maintenance and expansion of existing or recent multilingual practices. In cases where, for example, circular letters, training and/or meetings have been multilingual in the past, the number of languages concerned may not be reduced to one language only. However, the number of languages involved may be increased.

        5.10 Multilingual meetings. Meetings are held in the common language; that is to say, the language which everyone can understand. If necessary, the presiding person should determine which language this is. Every employee may use a language other than the chosen common language. An employee who wishes to use another language should ensure that a summary is provided in the common language (by him-/herself or another person). If such a summary is not provided, then what is said in the other language is not considered, or recorded in the minutes. For important meetings, the presiding person may decide beforehand, in consultation with the language desk, that interpreting services by one or more language workers or hired interpreters are essential.

        5.11 Communication between supervisors and team members should be carried out in the organisation’s first language choice, or in another common language which has been agreed on between all the members and the supervisor. The supervisor must ensure that all the team members understand the communication. If necessary, some of the team members may be asked to interpret or to provide summaries. In the case of critical communication, for example where working methods or safety aspects are concerned, the help of the language desk may be requested, for example by providing translations of centrally distributed documents, or even by providing interpreters in highly critical situations.

        5.12 Documents directed to the employees should be provided on a multilingual basis, in order of importance and feasibility. The more widely a document is distributed, the more important that document will be from the point of view of communication. The more regularly the document appears, the more feasible it will be to provide translations.

        5.13 Reports and correspondence. Employees can write reports and letters to their sectional heads in the language of their choice, but must, if the recipient(s) request this, also provide a summary in the language constituting the first choice of the organisation.

        5.14 In order to support the internal language policy, the full-time/part-time language workers can render language services for the purposes of multilingual external communication.



    From the literature (cf. the separate literature study), it is evident that effective communication within the organisation is particularly concerned with:

    • Task information
      • work instruction
      • process information
      • commercial information
      • decision-making information

    • Control information
    • Policy information
    • Motivational information
    • Training

    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:

    • Only a little more than 42% of the population have a speaking knowledge of English (which is mostly advocated by organisations as the only organisational language), and approximately the same percentage of the population are able to speak Afrikaans. A language policy for organisations should thus take the absence of a general common language into account.

    • Regarded from a functional viewpoint, multilingualism is particularly important in the lower working levels of the organisation. It would also seem that proficiency in the language which comprises the organisation’s first choice is an important element in the mobility of workers within an organisation, in order for them to be able to progress towards managerial level.

    • Where a group of employees feels strongly about the use of their own language, and suffers from a lack of proficiency in other languages, this issue has the potential to become a significant demotivating factor. It is therefore important to obtain the co-operation of employees in the formulation of a language policy, and not to enforce it on a one-sided basis.

    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 requirements for effective organisational communication
    • the requirements set by the Constitution of the RSA in respect of the promotion of multilingualism, both in the letter and the spirit.

    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 OAU’s “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.

    3 Budget

    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
    It is proposed that every employee’s language preference should be ascertained by means of a survey. The determination of the language preferences of individual employees has a two-fold function — in the first place, the employee’s preference is recorded for the purposes of personal correspondence to such an employee (for example, letters of appointment, salary slips, etc.). In the second place, the individual language preferences are recorded in order to determine the language preferences of the organisation as a whole.

    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
    From the investigation, it became clear that language issues comprise an important priority to employees in respect of disciplinary hearings. A just hearing should preferably be conducted in the language of the accused. If this is not possible, provision should be made for an interpreting procedure. In the composition of a disciplinary committee, the language preference of the accused can already be taken into account and accommodated, as far as this is practically possible.

    5.3 Installation of a language desk
    In order for multilingualism to be instituted and implemented, it should comprise a specific task of a particular person. Multilingualism does not come into being spontaneously. It must be planned, instituted, implemented and controlled. If the language budget is small, multilingualism can comprise one of the tasks of a training officer or personnel officer (since only a part of the salary of that official can be carried by the language budget). If sufficient funds are available, one or more language workers can be specially appointed for the purpose (see point 3, above).

    5.4 to 5.8: Language and training
    The conducting of hearings, tests, examinations and interviews in the preferred language of the accused, the learner or the applicant is not always possible. If the language worker, training officer or personnel officer concerned is not familiar with the required language,

    1. a co-language-worker or official may be requested to assist, or
    2. the assistance of an interpreter or translator can be hired,
    3. an experienced colleague of the accused or learner who is familiar with the language in question may be requested to assist.

    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 candidate’s suitability for an appointment.

    5.9 Existing practices
    In keeping with the Constitution, it is proposed that existing practices in respect of multilingualism should not be downscaled, but rather expanded.

    5.10 and 5.11 Multilingual meetings/oral communication
    As a result of the pressure which exists in organisations in an attempt to find a common language for meetings (and to oblige all participants to speak in that language only), many employees are not really able to make a worthy contribution to such meetings, since they are often unable to speak the common language, or cannot speak it well. The compulsory nature of unilingual meetings is also an important aspect causing employees to become negatively disposed towards an organisation. The reason for this is that qualified employees become disempowered if their proficiency in another language is a decisive factor in respect of the contributions which they are able to render to an organisation. At meetings, team gatherings and in all oral communication, the principle is valid that the more important the topic, the more trouble should be taken to bear the language differences between the participants in mind, and to bridge these differences.

    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
    The principles of importance and feasibility are also relevant in respect of the translation of documents. A staff magazine or pamphlet is planned long before the time, and distributed to all employees. It is possible to include articles in the first two or more preferred languages, as well as a summary of each article in the foremost preferred language of the organisation. The languages used may differ from issue to issue. Salary slips can be compiled in the chosen language of every employee, with the help of a computer. The same applies to standard letters of appointment and standard letters concerning, for example, salary increases, as well as electronic messages. Rules concerning leave, the medical scheme, housing, pension and other benefits can be distributed to the employees, over time, in their respective chosen languages. This can assist in eliminating misconceptions concerning fringe benefits. Even if all that is achieved is a feeling on the part of employees that their language preferences are important to the organisation, an overall positive motivational benefit will have been attained.

    5.13 Communication from employees
    Language proficiency is often the determinative factor in the assessment of an employee’s proficiency and effectiveness, on the grounds of the communication which proceeds from the employee to his supervisors and the organisation as a whole. For example, a perception may arise that an employee is incompetent, when it is in fact a misconception, connected to the worker’s proficiency (or lack thereof) in a language other than his home language. If the element of coercion (to communicate in a language in which the employee is actually not at all proficient) is eliminated from this process, it becomes possible for employees to express themselves in the language of their choice — provided that a summary, at least, is also provided in the organisation’s first-choice language, where this is requested.

    5.14 External communication
    The language budget is not intended to defray the expenses of an organisation’s multilingual advertising campaigns and multilingual product packaging. These aspects form part of the manufacturing costs. However, the existing language office can assist with once-off and occasional requirements for language services in respect of external communication, such as the translation of the summary of the annual report into the organisation’s preferred languages.


    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 employee’s preferred language should be accommodated within the organisation. However, resources can be allocated on the basis of what can be afforded.

    Large organisation
    With a hypothetical salary account of R2,4 billion (see the policy), and according to the guideline of 0,1% of the salary account, this implies that the organisation will have R2,4 million available to implement a language policy. With such a budget, the organisation will be able to apply various functions in all 11 official languages within the undertaking — if a need for this is indicated by the language preferences of the members.

    Small organisation
    A hypothetical salary account of R21 million would imply that only R21 000 is available for the promotion of multilingualism in this organisation. This amount is too small to finance a full-time language desk, which means that work in respect of all language-related matters, such as translations and so on, will have to be contracted out.

    Language committee

    Large organisation
    In every centre and, on an overall basis, at the head office, language committees are appointed by the existing forums. The language committee at the head office resolves to allocate the language budget proportionally to the centres (after money has been kept aside for overall projects). At each centre, a language committee is appointed in a similar manner. The language committee then formulates a proposal for the employment of resources on the basis of the language preferences of the employees at that centre (while also taking the organisation’s first language choice into consideration, for those functions which require feedback to the head office).

    Small organisation
    In the smaller organisation, a language committee is also appointed by the existing forum, to make proposals concerning priorities in the employment of the funds.

    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 employee’s 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 employee’s 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

    Large organisation
    For the various centres (and at head-office level), language offices can be installed to translate important documentation, policy documents, procedures, etc., into the different preferred languages and to make them available in these languages. The language offices can also manage the language policy and provide interpreting services where necessary. Urgent communication (for example, in respect of emergency situations, safety issues, etc.) can initially be formulated in the organisation’s first-choice language, and later in other languages where this is functionally possible (in terms of time). Important upward communication can also be dealt with by the language desk.

    Small organisation
    A small organisation cannot afford to appoint full-time language practitioners, and can make use of services that are contracted out to perform translation work, so as to be able to use at least the first two or three preferred languages in terms of priority. The function of the language office can be handled by the (or a) personnel officer/training officer. The budget (cf. the budget mentioned above) may, for example, be worked out as follows:

    The appointed language committee proposes the following budget, which can be negotiated via the usual forums:

    1. Translation of policy documents, instructions and certain articles in the staff news-sheet (for the first two or three preferred languages): R14 000
    2. Budgeting for interpreting costs in respect of disciplinary hearings (where interpreters are not available on an internal basis): R4 000
    3. Once-off translations of standard (computerised) documents such as salary slips, letters of appointment, letters concerning salary increases, etc. (into the preferred languages of all the employees): R1 500
    4. Unforeseen language issues: R1 500.

    Communication in preferred languages

    Large and small organisations
    In addition to the usual written communication, use should also be made of computer technology as far as possible — this also applies to communication via e-mail where relevant. At the different centres, communication in the indicated preferred languages is accepted — as set out in the policy. On the appointment of training officers, the preferred languages in the centre are taken into account. In meetings (and therefore minutes) and in written communication from employees, any one of the favoured languages may be used, so long as any such communication is accompanied by at least a summary in the first language choice of the organisation, where this is required. All written communications of a personal nature (for example from the personnel office) should be conveyed to individual employees in the language of their personal choice (these are usually standard letters which have already been previously translated long beforehand, so that relevant details can simply be changed).

    The following language issues do not have any financial implications and can therefore be implemented without difficulty:

    • Language use during meetings — as proposed by the policy
    • Communications from employees (reports, requests, etc.) — as proposed in the policy
    • Appointment of training officers, with due consideration of the preferred languages of the organisation.


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