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Why the necessity for multilingualism?

Khethiwe Marais

  • Die Taalsekretariaat
  • Doelstelling
  • A paper presented at the MWU conference on “Multilingualism in the workplace”

    South Africa is a multilingual and multicultural country. Our Constitution affirms and acknowledges this reality by declaring 11 official languages. Over and above this, there are many other languages spoken by the citizens of this country. The majority of the citizens neither speak, nor understand English and yet our economic practices and policies stubbornly work against this reality. It is also a known fact that South Africa has a high rate of poverty and inequalities. Turning this situation around needs the development of human resources, and maximum involvement of the citizens. People can effectively participate best in their own languages.

    Our society is multilingual and multicultural
    Because the society at large is multilingual and multicultural, our workplaces within all the sectors of the economy should be a microcosm of the society. Indeed all the economic sectors are invariably multilingual and multicultural in character. What is lacking is the formal and official recognition and acknowledgement of this through the practices and policies of our businesses.

    It is through language that people acquire, demonstrate, practice and receive knowledge, information, skills, competencies, services and values. Language enables people to express in words what they know, what they see, what they experience and what they feel.

    Language is a human right and a basic need
    Language is a human right and a basic need in life. It enables people to acquire the most basic human resources. Language is a basic tool for human survival, for development and advancement. It is through language that people interact with their own world at social, cultural, religious or economic levels.

    Effective communication can be achieved through the use of peoples’ first or primary languages. Language makes it possible for people to co-operate, share ideas and reach consensus and understanding so that they are able to work towards common goals or objectives.

    The acceptance and practice of multilingualism is a concrete way of showing acceptance of other peoples’ humanity. Accepting other peoples’ languages means accepting their equality
    and cultures. It is in essence accepting and practising the principle of democracy, giving people their right to hear and to be heard in their languages.

    Language plays a crucial role at different levels of the workplace
    As far as the workplace is concerned, there are crucial areas where language plays a vital role:

    • The production process
    • Between workers and supervisors
    • Between workers and managers
    • In labour negotiations
    • In training
    • In safety, security and protection in the working environment
    • Terms and Conditions of service
    • Benefits, remuneration and incentives
    • Personal development, job satisfaction and promotion opportunities
    • Efficiency and productivity

    The production process
    The modern production process by nature is a social process. There is very little production that occurs without some form of communication. Human beings need to communicate, co-operate and collaborate whilst engaged in production and work operations. Language is therefor a tool of production, and production is a result of communication through language. This therefore means that within the production process, language facilitates effective communication. Language also gives workers access to higher levels of the production process.

    As language is a tool of production, it is in the interest of supervisors to communicate with workers in their primary languages, in the production process and the communications thereof. In this process, workers should be allowed to freely use their languages to communicate effectively and adequately.

    Often the managers take decisions that have to be implemented by workers in the production process, or that workers need to be aware of in the overall running of the company, so that they can support the company in its direction and objectives. In this case again, managers and workers need to communicate through the use of languages. Language practitioners can be used to facilitate communication between workers and managers where there are language barriers to communication. Language learning and teaching should be made part and parcel of overall training programmes of companies.

    Labour negotiations
    In labour negotiations, the use of the primary languages of workers could come in handy in conflict resolution, and for promoting goodwill between workers and managers. This does not however mean that other social disparities can be glossed over. The implementation of multilingualism has to go hand in hand with other processes of social transformation regarding the institutions of the workplace.

    In the training arena, the implementation of multilingualism needs to be pursued with vigour. The content of training materials needs to be made available in the primary or first languages of workers. This will contribute to the effective utilisation of resources and the achievement of higher outputs. A lot of time and resources could be saved, by making use of the primary language, or languages, of the trainees. The use of employees’ languages in training and development is also an acknowledgement that people do have knowledge and expertise that needs to be tapped into for further development. By so doing this makes employees feel like active participants in their own training, and would motivate them further. Language is central to the skills development of the workforce.

    Language for safety and security in the workplace
    It can also be argued that the use of languages that workers are highly proficient in can contribute significantly to creating safe and secure working environments. The issue of safety and security in the workplace is not only a managerial issue. It is an issue that affects all the workers and thus, there should be maximum participation in securing a safe working environment on the part of both workers and management. This can be achieved by making use of the primary languages of the workers.

    The use of workers’ languages in safety and security measures, training and generally in the workplace would achieve the following:

    • It would create a learning climate in which the workers feel that they are listened to, taken seriously and feel free to participate;
    • It would create a climate in which all workers will feel that it is their task to achieve the highest level of safety and security and make them feel able to contribute to their best levels;
    • It would keep everybody involved and active;
    • It would make everybody feel committed to following appropriate processes and safety procedures, and also make them committed to carrying out decisions on these issues.

    The terms and conditions of service
    The terms and conditions of service constitute a highly contested terrain by both workers and managers. This is exacerbated by the fact that documents relating to this issue are by and large written in a highly technical language. It would save a great deal of misunderstanding and pain if these documents were written in plain and accessible language as well as being translated into the various languages of the workers.

    Benefits, remuneration and incentives
    Sometimes misunderstandings occur between employers and workers because workers do not understand or are not happy about issues related to their benefits, remuneration and incentive schemes. This can be a source of conflict and making information related to these issues available in different workers’ languages, would alleviate some of the misunderstandings.

    Personal development, job satisfaction and promotion opportunities
    The language issues also play a central role in contributing to the personal development of employees, and to job satisfaction. This satisfaction can be more at an emotional and psychological level. Some work sociologists have argued that this aspect of job satisfaction is as important as remuneration. People will feel satisfied if they think that they are being recognised and listened to as human beings, and the two-way communication between employer and employee at this level is crucial.

    The problems with promotion opportunities are that sometimes managers and supervisors confuse the issue of skills competency with language proficiency. This needs to be de-linked by ensuring that skills competencies can be assessed in the primary language of the workers so that language proficiency is not confused with job competency. Again, the workers’ primary languages can be utilised so that all workers have equal opportunities for promotion and advancement.

    Efficiency and productivity
    The business sector is more often concerned with issues of efficiency and productivity. Language should be utilised to ensure maximum participation and output by all the workers in enhancing efficiency and producticity. The primary languages of workers could be used to provide clear instruction manuals. The languages can also be utilised to motivate workers on productivity. Languages increase the capacity and potential of people to participate effectively and productively. The practice of multilingualism can contribute to the competitiveness of our economy internally and externally.

    The world experience
    Multilingualism seems to have a crucial role in the experiences of the successful economies. The countries that are sometimes referred to as Asian tigers have successful economies. These are countries like Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore etc. In these countries, the labour and production processes are conducted in the indigenous languages, although people are encouraged to learn foreign languages for trading purposes, accessing information about markets, cultures and the needs of their target clients.

    Why is it imperative for South Africa to implement a multilingual policy in our workplaces and economy

    • Democratisation of the workplace is part of the process of transforming our society in general, and part of developing a human rights culture and practice. Respect for other peoples’ languages and culture is part and parcel of this;

    • Literacy for the society at large and the workforce in particular will contribute to an informed workforce and to further development. Educationists assert that literacy is best run in the primary languages of the learners;

    • The need for efficiency and productivity in our economy requires effective communication, collaboration and co-operation, and sharing of information which involves utilising the languages of the workforce;

    • Constitutionally and legally, we are required to respect and accommodate the linguistic and cultural diversity of all the members society and in this case the workforce;

    • The imperatives for economic growth requires the involvement of all the citizens as far as is possible in productive economic activities. This involvement can also encourage job creation, and entepreneurial ventures. Multilingual training programmes and multilingual practices can guarantee the involvement of all;

    • Language skills will enable all the citizens to make a contribution to the general production and economic growth, and positive work ethic attitudes;

    • The need for accessing markets internally and externally requires that multilingual policies and practices should be developed and pursued by the business sector;

    • The low levels of competency in English limit the levels of participation in the workplace. Even where an employee has a basic knowledge in English or any language for that matter, this does not enable a person to function effectively and adequately at a complex production, business, and technical level.

    Even though some industries are involved in English literacy programmes, sufficient language competency will take a long time to develop to a point where people can function effectively and adequately in the acquired language.

    Experience has shown that people or learners receiving education and training in a foreign language under-perform compared to those who use their first or primary language.


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