Perspectives on Multilingualism

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. 

Language a Measure of Cultural Diversity

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.” 

Estonian Translation by Annika Kaabel

“Minu vanemate emakeel on eesti keel, mida räägib ainult ligukaudu miljon inimest maailmas. Selle tõttu suunasid nad mind juba väiksena võõrkeeli õppima, et maailmas end kuuldavaks teha. Niimoodi saadetigi mind juba viieselt inglise keele tundidesse ning koolis õppisin veel vene, prantsuse, hispaania, saksa ja rootsi keelt. Võõrkeelte õppimist jätkan tänaseni.” 

“Mitte kõik keeled pole aktiivsesse kasutusse jäänud, aga tänu mu akadeemilisele karjäärile on tulnud neilt paljudel kordadel nö tolmu pühkida, et teha uuringuid ja viia läbi intervjuusid teadustöö raames. Nüüd, elades kakskeelses kodus inglisekeelses ümbruses, on ümberlülitumine kolme keele vahel mulle väga loomulik asi. Ja kui ka tuleb ette juhuslikke vigu, tunnen, et oskus väljendada end mitmetes keeltes on lasknud mul suhelda paljude huvitavate inimestega ja andnud imelisi võimalusi, mis jäänuks saamata, kui oskaksin ainult oma emakeelt.” 

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.” 

Italian Translation by Lisa Annese

“Vengo da una famiglia multilingue. Mia madre è nata in Egitto e parlava correntemente francese, italiano, arabo e inglese. Mio padre è nato in Italia e ha imparato l’inglese in modo non strutturato migrando in Australia. Le mie prime due lingue erano il francese e l’italiano e non parlavo inglese quando andavo a scuola. Quando ho chiesto a mia madre, che parlava correntemente l’inglese, perché non riteneva opportuno che me lo imparassi prima che iniziassi la scuola, è rimasta perplessa. Ha spiegato che nella sua infanzia era molto normale imparare una nuova lingua per immersione e che lo aveva fatto più volte passando dalla scuola francese a quella italiana e poi a una formazione completa in inglese.” 

“Quello che mi piace di avere accesso a più lingue è che hai un vocabolario che include parole e frasi perfette per un momento particolare, ma che non hanno un descrittore inglese e tutti i miei preferiti derivano dal dialetto pugliese, e che suonano, secondo quelli che non riescono a capirlo, come incomprensioni. A un livello più profondo, entrare e uscire dalla lingua è collegato all’entrare e uscire dalla cultura e questo ti regala qualità camaleontiche che ti consentono di leggere una stanza e di sapere istintivamente come adattarti. Puoi identificare non solo ciò che viene detto, ma tutto ciò che non è detto e scritto in modo invisibile. Tali qualità sono una vera risorsa per qualsiasi luogo di lavoro.” 

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.