Linguistic discrimination at work

Linguistic discrimination at workDeborah Cameron noted in 1995 that “linguistic bigotry is among the last publicly expressible prejudices left to members of the Western intelligentsia.” In the same vein, one could point out that linguistic discrimination is among the last legal forms of discrimination left to Western employers. A German court recently ruled that an employer’s repeated criticisms of an employee’s German proficiency does not constitute a form of discrimination.

An internet portal for German lawyers reports that a woman from Croatia, a long-term resident of Germany, who has for many years worked as a cleaner for a public swimming pool, sued her employer because the employer had over a number of years repeatedly pressured her to attend German classes because they blamed her for “repeated communication problems with colleagues, supervisors and customers.” The court ruled that such pressure did not constitute discrimination as the comments were not motivated by a background characteristic of the plaintiff but by her lack of linguistic competence and the court added that the plaintiff should “give up her resistance to the language of the country.”

The case doesn’t seem to have been reported widely in the media but comments on one such report seem to mostly see the ruling as an expression of common sense: commentators there argue that if she doesn’t speak German, she should learn it; and anyways she should consider herself lucky to have a job! The court, too, seems to have based their judgment more on “common sense” than linguistic expertise. While I don’t have any information about the case beyond the media report, and I don’t know anything about the specific circumstances of the case, I do wonder whether the court considered any of the following:

  • A person’s linguistic repertoire is a relatively stable trait; language proficiency often fossilizes at a particular level and progress beyond that level can be very difficult; the ability to learn new languages generally decreases with age, and many other factors such as aptitude or opportunity may conspire to make improving language proficiency near impossible. It’s entirely possible that a full-time cleaner, an older worker who, according to the report, also suffers from severe health problems, and who is as likely as any woman to have to work a “second shift” at home, just does not have any time nor the energy left to devote to language classes.
  • And why should she? The next question is whether her work involves any language work? I.e. is any part of her work of a linguistic nature? If she is not (partly) remunerated for using language, her linguistic proficiency is of no concern to her employer. As far as I know, swimming pool cleaning doesn’t involve much talking or writing. Imagine an employer pressured an overweight office worker to take fitness classes – would “common sense” also dictate that the employee is not being harassed? Boutet (2008) provides a great overview of the role of language in various types of work.
  • What expertise do both the employer and the court have to determine the plaintiff’s level of language proficiency? Probably none and the report does not indicate that any expert testimony was sought. As I’ve said before, assessment of the linguistic proficiency of second language speakers somehow is a free-for-all.
  • When misunderstandings occur in communication, it’s rarely only the fault of one person – that’s why speakers and listeners usually share the communicative burden. However, we also know from studies such as Lindemann (2002) that, as soon as native and non-native speakers are involved, native speakers oftentimes opt out of sharing the communicative burden and place the responsibility for ensuring communicative success exclusively on the shoulders of non-native speakers. A double whammy! So, it’s not only the level of linguistic proficiency of the non-native speaker that causes problems, it’s also that native speakers refuse to tango … yet, the employer most likely would never have dreamt of advising the plaintiff’s colleagues to undergo intercultural communication and awareness training.

The most comprehensive resource on linguistic discrimination at work continues to be Rosina Lippi-Green’s 1997 book English with an accent. Next week’s 4th International Seminar Series of the AILA Research Network “Language and Migration” is held in Fribourg, Switzerland, and devoted to Language, Migration and Labor. Linguistic discrimination is likely to figure prominently! Boutet, Josiane (2008). La vie verbale au travail: Des manufactures aux centres d’appels [Language at work: from manufacturing to call centers] Paris: Octares

LINDEMANN, S. (2002). Listening with an attitude: A model of native-speaker comprehension of non-native speakers in the United States Language in Society, 31 (03) DOI: 10.1017/S0047404502020286

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Rosina Lippi Green

    I just came across your website and blog, and I’m so glad I did. Two things:

    I hadn’t heard about the German case, and I’m wondering if the EU has any guidelines on language discrimination, and

    I’m currently working on the (long overdue) revised second edition of English with an Accent. Just FYI.

  • Great post! One of the things I always notice at conferences is how much more difficult it is for people to do presentations when they are not very proficient with English. As with the pool-worker “Because they don’t speak english very well” would probably count as a valid, or at least not-looked-down-upon reason not to give someone a presentation slot.

  • Joerg Reiher

    I think there is an important fact missing in your description of the case (I just read the link to the “Deutsches Anwaltsportal”):
    The plaintiff also worked as a fill-in at the cash desk of the public swimming pool.


  • vittoria

    A very interesting piece. I wonder how often, like other forms of discrimination, linguistic discrimination in all its possible guises, goes unreported or occurs in covert ways that makes reporting or proving it very difficult.

  • Jenny Zhang

    Linguistic discrimination at work is also often seen in EFL countries where English is highly prized and legitimized as a gatekeeper for employment. While Beijing was preparing for the 2008 Olympic Games, the authority not only spent a lot of manpower, financial power and material resources in order to promote English among Beijing residents but also developed rules to require employees in the service sector to have an English proficiency certificate for employment. I wonder what the probability for those employees to serve foreigners is, not to mention how hard it is for them to “master” a foreign language as an adult leaner and a full-time worker.

  • xiaoxiao

    This reminds me of a report years ago about some talk show hosts in CCTV (China Central Television) who failed to pass the the highest level of standard mandarine test and were said to be leaving CCTV. They finally managed to stay, partly because they were quite popular with the audience, but in the meantime they had received sort of warning notice from their employer. We might argue that talk show hosts, unlike news anchors, needn’t speak perfect manderine because their primary task is to get the guests and the audience to be engaged in communication. It seems that linguistic discrimination at work exists not only in bilingual context but also in some professions which usually deem the standard pronunciation of a language as a prerequsite.

  • Zak

    I work for a premium German Auto manufacturer and I work mainly with international colleagues and use English most of the time. My boss cannot speak good English and has told me I have no future in the company without perfect German. I think My case is more Xenophobia than language discrimination? Interestingly we sell over over 80% of our cars to non German speaking people and most of them speak English.

  • Mary

    My managers discriminated against me because I do not speak like the native as my english language is my second language and reprimanded me, “You should never been given the job, you will never be acceptable” refering to my English.
    “What about your english, is that not an incapability?”
    HR and me often sniggered at your English”
    They then used their substandard work for me to correct and then cite that as my incapabilities for an eventual dismissal.
    They then plotted my dismissal.
    Dont you think that is racial discrimination?

  • Without knowing anything about the details of your case, there is certainly evidence that the “your English isn’t good enough” argument is sometimes used as a cloak for racial discrimination; see, e.g., Racism Without Racists or Multilingualism and Social Exclusion. Best wishes!

  • Pepe

    I see you’re talking about linguistic discrimination only in one way, that is, you only talk about being discriminated for speaking with not enough profficiency a major language. The case is really interesting, although I think when one person goes to live to another territory has to learn the language/s of that territory. I don’t like, for example, the people that have lived for a long time in my city (Barcelona) and have not even tried to learn catalan.
    I think it would be interesting to discuss as well the discrimination for being native-speaker of one language. I know people that are perfectly proficient in spanish but have some kind of catalan accent (but just accent, so there’s no communicative problem) and have been discriminated for that. Or the linguistic prejudices and discriminations that exist for speaking minority languages. “He speaks galician… what a boor” or “you can work here but please never speak basque to our customers”. PS:Sorry for my english!

  • Looking at job ads, I saw ads here in Sydney in which they asked for salespeople and wrote that they must be native English speakers. I thought that a slight accent would not prevent someone from being a good salesperson. I think I did complain to fair trading, but they weren’t interested. You are not allowed to say that you want only women for example, but you can say you want only native speakers.

  • eduardo

    i wonder if i should do something about it. i’ve being working for this company for over 8 years. new york city, New York. One year ago is being a little bit annoying a new supervisor every time she is approaching to me and in front of others employee; she starts remarking that i should take English courses to speak English. i do feel so embarrassed in front of the others co-workers. is anything someone can suggest? please i really appreciate it.

  • Linguistic discrimination is rampant all over the world. There are cases of ethnolects being discriminated against in the USA, such as the AAVE – African American Vernacular English or Spanglish or other ethnolects that belong to specific speech communities. Standard American English is the norm and everything else is less desirable by the employers.