“Not speaking my own language”: The impact of language on social capital formation in ethnically diverse workplaces


by Frederik Thuesen

Words matter crucially to the formation of social relations, particularly in ethnically diverse low-skill workplaces, where native-born workers encounter ethnic minority immigrant workers who may not be fluent in the host country language. Since many of these immigrant workers gain a foothold in the labor market in low-skill workplaces, linguistic barriers in these workplaces often have a profound impact on social relations.

Not surprisingly, many western workplaces—especially low-skill ones—are increasingly becoming ethnically and linguistically diverse from both immigration and the arrival of asylum-seekers from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Language is a crucial barrier—and potentially a bridge

When ethnic minority workers are unable to follow or take part in small talk or banter with native-born colleagues, these workers may feel excluded and discriminated against. Similarly, native-born workers listening to a group of immigrant colleagues speaking a (foreign) language that they don’t understand may likewise feel alienated. The combined consequences may be mutual avoidance, mistrust, and hostility. Still, even in workplaces with such ethnic and linguistic diversity, language is crucial to garnering resources such as the trust and mutual support inherent in social relations.

Immigrants who become sufficiently fluent in their new country’s dominant language to understand and contribute to the work talk and small talk of their native-born colleagues may gain access to those colleagues’ social networks, which can then provide social support. Conversely, native-born workers who, when communicating with their ethnic minority colleagues, speak slowly, pronounce clearly, and explain implicit meanings, may receive work-related and personal support from their often-immigrant ethnic minority colleagues.

Linguistic barriers can lead to hostility

Research on intercultural communication defines linguistic barriers as miscommunication and misunderstandings due to different levels of second language competence. These differences can ultimately lead to mistrust and hostility. One type of linguistic barrier derives from a situation in which a speaker (e.g., an immigrant) not yet fluent in the dominant language misinterprets the message because of difficulties in understanding accents, pronunciation, vocabulary, or grammar.

A second type of barrier works at the discourse level and centers on cultural regularities and conventions relating to appropriate communication, such as the use of greetings, orders, requests, or apologies. Both types of barriers may lead to uncertainty, anxiety, mistrust, and damaged social relations.

Linguistic bridges strengthen social relations

In contrast to linguistic barriers, linguistic bridges create efficient intercultural communication that establishes social relations which encompass trust and mutual support (i.e., social capital). Successful intercultural “work talk”—i.e., talk oriented towards task completion, with the native-born speaker seeking to make his or her language more understandable to non-native speakers—is one of those bridges.

Another example of a linguistic bridge is successful intercultural social talk—e.g., “small talk” oriented towards maintaining or enhancing social relations on seemingly innocuous topics such as the weather, sports, vacation plans, or recipes.

Unearthing a clash of languages in two Danish low-skill workplaces

The consequences of the increasing ethnic and linguistic diversity in low-skill workplaces became apparent during a sociological study involving interviews and observations in two highly ethnically diverse Danish low-skill workplaces. Denmark is among those Western countries with a trend toward greater ethnic diversity in the labor market. The five most common countries of origin for non-western ethnic minorities in Denmark, in descending order of numbers, are Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Pakistan.

One of the workplaces in the study was a municipal parking administration department employing street-level parking enforcement officers. The ethnic minority workers among them were mostly immigrants, some speaking relatively limited Danish. The interviews quickly showed that many immigrant employees mistrusted their native-born colleagues, feeling that these colleagues gave them little or no help or support.

The analysis revealed that linguistic barriers linked to different levels of majority language competence and cultural conventions contributed to the mistrust and hostility between minority and nonminority workers. These feelings were especially present among some of the older native-born workers and some of the younger immigrant or ethnic minority employees.

The other workplace was a supermarket employing many ethnic minority workers born in Denmark, who were fluent or almost fluent in Danish. Despite the solitary nature of the primary tasks in the supermarket (such as handling cash registers), linguistic barriers typically did not impede the formation of interethnic social capital. This effect most likely resulted from work talk related to collaboration, and from small talk and social talk among the young employees across and around the cash registers.

Social capital arose because through collaboration colleagues typically get to know each other better while assisting one another. Colleagues who understand each other well and provide each other with adequate work-related help may build up a social relation based on mutual sympathy and encompassing a broader willingness to help each other. Likewise, through social talk and small talk colleagues may get to know one another’s values, preferences and tastes—e.g. in child rearing, sports, or cooking. Workers who listen to their co-workers’ expressions of tastes and feelings may also deepen their mutual understanding and reciprocal willingness to provide personal support, and hence build up social capital.

Action needed from management and trade unions

Language is not the only factor influencing social relations and social capital formation in ethnically diverse workplaces. The relationship between management and different (ethnic) groups of employees matters. Time also matters—linguistic barriers may diminish over time as ethnic minorities gain greater linguistic proficiency and competence, and as native speakers of the majority language become more accustomed to their colleagues’ way of communicating.

In terms of practice, the role of management is important. Management defines the language rules of the workplace and is responsible for implementing them. For example, management can choose to provide sufficient language training for ethnic minority or immigrant workers with a weak command of the dominant language.

Management can also choose to provide intercultural communication training for ethnic majority workers. For example, management can train them to speak slowly and pronounce clearly, use easily accessible vocabulary, avoid taking a common life world or worldview for granted, and to follow up messages with questions that help ensure a common understanding.

Trade unions (which are highly influential in Denmark) could also provide shop stewards with intercultural communication training, thereby giving them a better understanding of conflicts—and how to avoid them—in ethnically and linguistically diverse workplaces.

Overall, ethnic and linguistic diversity is now a feature of many low-skill workplaces. Inaction in relation to the linguistic barriers related to such diversity runs the risk of sowing seeds of avoidance, mistrust, and hostility, thus further dividing native-born and ethnic minority or immigrant workers.

Frederik Thuesen, Research Manager and Senior Researcher at SFI – The National Danish Centre for Social Research. This article summarizes findings from “Linguistic Barriers and Bridges: Constructing Social Capital in Ethnically Diverse Low-Skill Workplaces,” published in Work, Employment and Society.

Image: nofrills via Flickr CC

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