What’s Your Mother Tongue at Work?

7 Jul , 2015  

I wanna quote the late Nelson Mandela who once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart”.

And isn’t it a reality in our work world where many of us use our mother tongue or other regional languages quite liberally with colleagues? At the end of the day, when I converse in the regional languages I grew up with, I somehow feel that my personality, character and skills become truly revealed because of the sound of the languages in the ear and their meaning establishes trust and confidence with colleagues. At work, where there’s just so much tension due to communication gaps, using our mother tongue could ease it with most of our colleagues, if not all.

Yet, when we choose to speak in languages understood only by a select few, some of our colleagues who don’t, feel uneasy. So, should we encourage the use of mother tongues at the workplace?

All six of my colleagues burst out laughing at a joke which was shared around the lunch table; but I was the only one who wasn’t amused! No, it wasn’t because I have a poor sense of humor or that the joke was lost on me; rather it was because I couldn’t understand the joke as it was told in Punjabi and with the exception of yours truly, everyone around the table spoke the language.

Almost instantly, I felt out of the place but alas, I couldn’t walk away from the table; it wasn’t the days of mobile phones whereby I could simply pretend to take a call or reply a message to avoid the embarrassment of feeling awkward.  And to make matters worse, my boss was also in the group and I sat rooted and pretended ignorance.

Today, 17 years since, my own proficiency of languages have improved. I now fluently speak 4 different regional languages and understand an additional 2 a lot better. But times haven’t changed as I still hear and encounter similar situations; some of which I inflict and some I personally experience.

So, I have to ask – why do we choose to speak in our mother tongues which is understood only by a select few and in the process make the rest of our colleagues who don’t, feel uneasy? I speak for myself when I say that this happens out of ignorance rather than intent.  🙂

Another similar live occurrence to the one I experienced comes to mind: once when 2 other colleagues and I were in the midst of a serious argument, I spoke in Kannada to one of them to ease the tension in the room. I said, “irli bidi” which loosely meant, “let’s keep calm and move on”; assuming that the discussion ended peacefully. But it had an opposing effect on the other colleague who complained in another forum about the lack of trust we had with him. This was because he didn’t understand the language and thought that I used the common dialect to isolate him when my intention was really to diffuse the situation! On hindsight, I admitted that I would have felt the same if I were in his shoes.

Yet still, in some ways, I strongly believe that speaking in non-English languages (despite my personal unease from time to time from lack of proficiency in a few regional languages) provide me with a better ability to connect with some of my colleagues.

On a lighter note, let’s make a case as to why I think Mother Tongues (MT) should be used in office:

  1. I choose to be a better team player with people who spoke my Mother Tongue over being a loner, otherwise J
  2. Preserving the heritage of my language. Many of these languages have centuries of history behind them so if I don’t use them, who will?
  3. Makes me feel at home and increases my emotional attachment to the organization. And who knows that this might increase my productivity too?
  4. Keeps the spies of my boss at bay when I have to bitch about him/her in a regional language understood by a select few!
  5. Respecting diversity at the workplace. 🙂

The frequent usage of local languages or Mother Tongues at work is not exclusive to India. On the contrary, it’s an international best practice which you’ll come face-to-face with if you’re a travel bug, like me. Almost everywhere in the world, it’s clear as broad daylight as to how Mandarin, Spanish, Dutch, French, even Urdu (among many other languages) bring the people who converse in them closer to each other; and along with this comes the opposite effect of causing a trust barrier with those who don’t – especially when we converge on common platforms from diverse countries.

I’m aware of the need to keep a respectable balance between connecting emotionally with colleagues through the use of a common Mother Tongue and NOT causing unnecessary discomfort with those who don’t.  Hey, every city has its own diverse speaking crowd and no single language acts as common so keeping the balance for the good of everyone is very important!

Some of you might say, “Well, we can always count on the English Language.”  But English does not connect with all of us emotionally! Or does it?

Kya khayal he aapka?

Kya khayal hai aapka?


One Response

  1. vishnu k says:

    Hi Sir,
    out of curosity, I would like to know why in Back ground verification process the feedback of previous manager is taken? In India, most of the people move from one company to other due to issues with the current manager and for better compensation/position. In most of the cases, past manager does not give good feedback about his team member which will impact the career of the person. Could you please shed some light on the above practice which i feel is bad from Indian perspective ……..
    Thanks & Regards,

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