Ask the Conversation Doctor

Episode 2: When I speak Spanish at work, I get funny looks

Dear Doctor:

My family moved to LA from Guadalajara when I was five. I grew up speaking Spanish and English, and Spanglish too (which my grandparents hate, but whatever).

I usually eat lunch in the breakroom with my friend “Frida” and we sometimes speak Spanish while we’re eating. And I talk to some of our clients in Spanish when it seems like they prefer it. But I see people at work giving me funny looks when I’m not speaking English, and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard a few comments made under their breath. Is it unprofessional for me to speak Spanish at work?

“Diego”

 

The diagnosis

Hi, Diego!

First of all, no, it is not unprofessional to speak Spanish at work, especially with clients who prefer to speak it. But you might want to be proactive about your work relationships. More on this later.

It sounds like some of the people you work with hold the cultural belief best summarized as It’s America, so speak English! In this cultural belief, being American is equated with speaking English.  

This cultural belief is found all over the country, even in cities like Los Angeles, which was part of Spanish-speaking Mexico until 1848. (And before Spanish arrived, most people in the region spoke Tongva, Chumash, and Tataviam.) 

Compared to many other countries, we here in the US have an unusual attitude towards bilingualism. While other cultures support stable bilingualism, where it’s expected that lots of people will speak more than one language, here immigrant groups are expected to transition to speaking English only. Families are meant to abandon the language of the old country. And usually in two to three generations, that language is gone from the family. For example, my great-grandparents spoke five different languages, but my brother and I were raised almost completely in English.

This attitude hurts us in a few ways. It makes national security crises harder to respond to. It puts us at a disadvantage in terms of global business. And it can make monolingual English speakers suspicious of or even angry with people speaking other languages.

There are three major issues you’re facing when you have co-workers who are coming from the It’s America, so speak English! perspective.

The first is that cultural attitudes can lead people to feel like public spaces and some work spaces should be English only, and that anything else is inappropriate.

The second is that people who don’t know how code-switching works may think you’re talking smack about them. They don’t understand that there are lots of reasons bilinguals switch between their languages, and hiding what they’re talking about is one of the least frequent.

And the third is that although linguists think of all languages as equally good, right now in the US, Mexican Spanish isn’t seen as one of the higher-prestige languages. (This is really too bad.) By contrast, French is a high-prestige language. If you and Frida had studied abroad in Paris and had a French practice group at lunch, attitudes at work towards your speaking something other than English would probably be different. 

 

The prescription

On the one hand, you’re not doing anything wrong.

There’s no law that says that English is the official language of America. And your company probably doesn’t have an English-only policy for the workplace – companies that do can get into trouble with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or get sued.

Just because many American workplaces have historically been only English-speaking doesn’t mean they have to stay that way. A lot of American workplaces used to have only white people or men working there. And we don’t think too highly of that today.

Your monolingual co-workers have their own range of speaking styles. They speak differently in meetings, when giving presentations, and when eating lunch in the breakroom. Your range of styles includes another language; theirs doesn’t. You’re just stylistically more diverse. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

On the other hand, you don’t want to have bad relationships with your co-workers. So you might want to try to do some proactive work and inoculate yourself.

One thing you can do is look into your company’s diversity and inclusion policy. A lot of companies are realizing that they need to make all of their employees feel included and welcome, so your company might be working on that.

Once you know what the policies are (or aren’t), you can talk to your manager or someone in HR and tell them about your situation. Hopefully, they won’t be too stuck in the America = English-speaking perspective themselves, and will work to foster a more inclusive environment. It would be great if your co-workers could get educated on bilingualism and code-switching, but the burden shouldn’t be on you to educate them.

Also, if you’re helping clients feel more comfortable by speaking to them in their preferred language, you’re probably helping your company retain business. A good manager will want you to feel comfortable at work so you don’t quit and move to a place with a more welcoming environment. If your company is smart, they’ll make it clear that your bilingualism is a strength and part of your identity rather than something to be looked at with hostility.

________________________

Want to ask your own questions about workplace communication? Send an e-mail to wertheim@worthwhileconsulting.com and put “Ask the Conversation Doctor” in the subject line.

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim is a linguistic anthropologist who has been researching and teaching about language and culture for twenty years. She works with businesses to improve their communication culture.

 

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