Perspectives on Multilingualism

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Linguistic diversity is a rich part of our societal fabric and might be an essential part of an individual's identity. It can have special resonance, depth and complexity for the individuals who lay claim to it, and it can bring great benefits to the workplace if regarded as an asset. 

Unfortunately, in our past we have not always recognised the value of our diverse linguistic backgrounds. The many languages that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Māori peoples speak have been under threat since colonisation, and keeping them from extinction, without the broader community’s support, has been a complicated task. 

Therefore, on this International Mother* Language Day, we invite you to listen to the many languages that surround you, and to also learn about those that only a few people speak. 

As DCA members, you can do so by taking a look at the linguistic diversity within your organisation and finding ways to celebrate its richness. DCA’s Counting Culture report identified language as a highly meaningful and important measure of cultural diversity (and provides suggestions on how to ask about multilingualism in an accurate, respectful and inclusive way). However, we also heard  that workers who speak a language other than English and/or who are from a non-English speaking cultural background are statistically more likely than workers who are not to report feeling excluded at work. This finding reminds us there is more work to do to create truly inclusive workplaces.  

To acknowledge all these issues, and mark this important day celebrating multilinguism, DCA looks to its own staff to tell their stories.  

In DCA, 41% of our employees were born overseas and 51% are of a non-main English speaking background. Through first-hand insights from the people behind this data, we compare the personal inclusion experiences of language, what it means to our employees, and the benefits multilinguism can bring to workplaces. 

Veronica Eulate, Social Media Content Strategist, DCA  

“Language can be a powerful unifier, while separating us at the same time. This is something I learned young, as a first-generation Bolivian American, born and raised in the US. My parents migrated to the north of the Americas seeking greater opportunities and my sister and I were raised in a traditional Bolivian household, with constant reminders that we did things differently than the Americans. One of those great differentiators was our language.  

“Times were different back then, and it felt like you had to be one or the other, you couldn’t be ‘all of it’. As a result, I distanced myself from my cultural background, and our native tongue, believing this would erase my difference. Of course, it did not but, thankfully, the hard work my parents put in towards keeping Spanish the main language in our house now means that Spanish is always with me, no matter how much I stumble at times when speaking it.  

“Today I am a proud Latinx American Australian, embracing the intersectionality of my identities and full of gratitude for the importance of the language my parents passed on to me. I believe it has helped to shape not just who I am, but my ability to connect with a diverse group of people. 

“While the technical ability to speak multiple languages is clearly an advantage in a work environment where multiple languages are used, I believe there are other advantages to having multi-lingual speakers in a workplace. Speaking multiple languages gives you an appreciation for difference, and empathy for those who have had to learn the dominant language in order to work and integrate. It gives you patience for those who may struggle in their ability to communicate in the dominant way.” 

Annika Kaabel, Research Manager, DCA 

“Having a native tongue (Estonian) that only around one million people in the world speak, my parents always knew that I would have to learn a few other languages to get around. That’s why I was put into an English study group at the age of five, and why in school I took up Russian, French, Spanish, German, and Swedish, and have continued to learn languages ever since.  

“Not all of the languages have stuck but, thanks to my career in academia, I have had to dust off these language skills to do research and conduct interviews on many occasions. Now living in a bilingual household in an English-speaking environment, switching between three languages has become very natural to me, and even though I make an occasional mistake, I do feel that being able to express myself in multiple languages has given me access to a lot of interesting people and wonderful opportunities that might have been closed off if I had remained with my native tongue only.” 

Read in Estonian

Lisa Annese, CEO, DCA  

“I come from a multi-lingual family. My mother was born in Egypt and was fluent in French, Italian, Arabic and English. My father was born in Italy and learned English in an unstructured way upon migrating to Australia. My first two languages were French and Italian and I spoke no English when I went to school. When I asked my mother, who was fluent in English, why she didn’t see fit for me to learn it before I started school, she was perplexed. She explained that in her childhood, it was very normal to learn a new language via immersion and that she had done this several times upon changing from the French school to the Italian school and then to a complete education in English. 

“What I love about having access to multiple languages is that you have a vocabulary that includes words and phrases perfect for a particular moment, but which have no English descriptor. All of my favourites derive from the dialect of La Puglia, and which sound, according to those who cannot understand it, like gibberish. On a deeper level, moving in and out of language is connected to moving in and out of culture and this gifts you with chameleon like qualities that enable you to read a room and know instinctively how to adapt. You can identify not only what is said, but everything unspoken and invisibly written. Such qualities are a true asset for any workplace.” 

Read in Italian  

Kelly Te Heuheu, Digital Communications Advisor, DCA 

“Like many other Māori, my mother language almost died with my grandparents and parents' generation. My grandparents were beaten for speaking their first language, te Reo Māori at school. My mother too was banned from speaking it at school. 

“Te Reo Māori has survived colonisation, decades of Crown suppression, capital punishment in schools and widespread societal discouragement. It wasn't until protests and petitions for revival in the 80s that we started seeing efforts to embrace the language, even if it only started out as tokenistic. Today, the demand from Māori and non-Māori to learn the language is so high that there are years-long waiting lists for courses. 

“It is this history that accounts for the complicated relationship I have with my mother tongue today. Although my knowledge of my genealogy and roots are strong and I try to use the Māori language every day, I am not fluent and this comes with great feelings of whakamā/shame. I am not alone in this feeling; thousands of other Māori feel the same. My mum didn't send me to a full immersion Māori school because of her experiences as a child. But also, growing up, I quickly realised that in this society, it was unacceptable to be Māori. Now, attitudes have changed for the better. Those attitudes still aren't perfect, but now that I have room to be who I am, I will keep trying to learn my language and reclaim my culture - if not for me then for future generations.” 

Sudha Narthakumar, Member Relations Advisor, DCA  

“I was born in Malaysia to Indian parents who were also born and raised in Malaysia. From Malaysia, we moved to Brunei, prior to migrating to Australia. Malaysia’s ethnicity mainly consists of Malay, Indian and Chinese people. Growing up as a young child, I spoke Tamil, Malay and English whilst living in predominantly Muslim countries. I was mainly surrounded by Malay, Tamil, Mandarin and English on a daily basis and, as a result, I was also fully immersed in and surrounded by Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. In fact, whilst I was born Hindu, my parents still sent me to Sunday school with my Chinese Christian neighbour in Malaysia. Growing up in Brunei, my best friends were Malay/Muslim, but we all attended a Catholic school and it was a pre-requisite to learn Malay and English. 

“On my very first day of primary school in Australia (I was 11), I experienced my first form of direct racism: this kid bounced his basketball past me and yelled out that I was “dirty” and needed a “wash”. At that age, you are oblivious to the impact and trauma that this kind of racism has on you. And as a young child who dreamt daily about living in an international country, I found I wanted to eradicate my identity, languages and culture as quickly as I could. I wanted to sound and act as “Australian” as quickly as possible, to fit in with what I thought represented Australia at the time. I wanted to avoid being bullied for looking and sounding different. And I achieved that within months, unaware of the wonderful gifts that had been bestowed upon me. 

“Today though, I am an incredibly proud culturally diverse Australian woman learning my 4th language, French. My partner is French, and our 3.5-year-old is fully bilingual in French/English. In the workplace, being multilingual is truly a unique gift. It allows you to be effortlessly adaptable, open, empathic and understanding of other languages, cultures, religions and minority groups. It’s almost as though among those who are raised multilingual, there is this unspoken commonness that binds us to one another, because we get the sensitivities and perspectives that come with language, culture and identities in a diverse workforce.” 


Read more: 

Counting Culture 2021  

Gari Yala (Speak the Truth) 

DCA web resources on cultural diversity and the business case for multilingualism 

*DCA recognises that the term ‘Mother languages’ may not be inclusive for all people, or an accurate description of the relationship that all people have with language. However, we use the term here as it is the term used by the United Nations. For a discussion of these issues, please see DCA’s Counting Culture report.  

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