Bilingual Workplaces

“Bilingual Workplaces? No, non, nyet, nein.”

Bill Levinson wrote an article for the Quality Insider on the problems of translating and maintaining work documents in multiple languages. He prefers another option, requiring English as a second language.

He quotes from Genesis 11:9, which says, “Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the languages of all the earth.”

Mr. Levinson believes this verse contains a valuable lesson for today: a multiplicity of languages makes it harder to run a workplace effectively.

He asks us to consider, for example, a workplace that issues work instructions in English and Spanish. Every time a work instruction is changed, someone must translate it into Spanish. Technical translations are expensive and, even worse, increase the chance of introducing an error.

This problem can be circumvented somewhat if the job can be entirely described by pictures. However, the author states, the kind of job that can be described without words is essentially a job for illiterate workers.

He continues by saying it is impossible to have effective cross-functional and cross-shift teamwork in a Tower of Babel. Literacy in English is, therefore, a reasonable job requirement for employment in the United States.

Mr. Levinson relates that Henry Ford treated English as a requirement when immigrants from Germany, Poland, the Balkans and a multitude of other countries sought work in his factories. The immigrants didn’t have to know English, but a willingness to learn was a condition of employment.

The author concludes that the best policy is, therefore, not to try to run bilingual workplaces, but to provide mandatory classes in English as a second language for employees who don’t speak English. The cost of the training will probably be offset by not having to translate documents into another language.

To see the full article, go to Quality Insider.