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Language: To bind or to divide

The need of cross-cultural and inter lingual binding is equally important, not just at work place but also in everyday life, writes Shalini Kathuria Narang.

india Updated: Jan 10, 2007 17:29 IST

A couple of months back My eight year old daughter came back from school and said that her teacher had scolded three Chinese girls from conversing in "their language" in the class. The teacher had said, "Let us speak a language that everyone understands in the class."

I thought the teacher had handled the situation very well and I did not think more about it. I am sure the three young girls were attending Mandarin or Cantonese language classes at the behest of their parents keen to instil the love of the lingo to their progeny and were merely practicing their learning or expertise with each other.

Recently a colleague in the Quality Assurance team at my workplace came and confided that she is having a hard time in her group. In her team of five quality assurance analysts, four are Chinese who communicated both work and other issues in "their language." She felt isolated and detached and was not able to integrate in the team.

At my last work place, a group of about ten Indian engineers after heating up their lunch in the kitchen would sit around the table chatting in Hindi on Indian cricket, movies and politics from the sub continent. The aroma of their gastronomic delights would fill up the kitchen. Varied times my mainstream colleagues would ask me about the delectable portions and the resulting appetizing aroma. Many a times I ended up giving them directions to the nearby Indian grocery store and restaurant or enumerated the making and stuffing of samosas, sambar and pakoras.

The Silicon Valley corporate, especially the software companies are as cosmopolitan as it can get and one hears Hindi, Mandarin, Kannada, Tamil, Cantonese and a slew of other languages and lingoes all the time, in and outside cubes, offices, conference rooms, cafeterias and restrooms.

In the past I have not been bothered about the lingual preferences of the people and I am sure in one on one conversations I have often spoken both work and other matters in Hindi to other Indian colleagues. However, I do not lucidly remember, but I hope I have never on purpose or by accident isolated anyone or hurt anyone's feelings.

As a tri linguist, I understand that the urge to indulge in one's primary lingo is natural and not a vicious attempt to hold or hide vital piece of information. 

This was my simplistic thinking before my colleague apparently hurt and on the verge of a job change confided in me.

Her discomfiture has set me thinking: where and when does an individual or a corporate draw a line so that a situation like my colleague's does not happen and instead of a language being a means of communication and interaction, it becomes a cause of division and dislike.

While my preference would be for individual discretion and inter personal sensitivity, yet knowing the nature of American corporate, in light of others having experienced and reported lingual discomfiture, I am sure the Human Resources at varied companies would be busy drafting special guidelines and agendas on lingo use to prevent workplace polarity. 

While attraction to familiar especially in a foreign land is comforting and natural, the need of cross-cultural and inter lingual binding is equally important, not just at work place but also in everyday life.

In addition, while promoting the love of the language, cuisine and culture from the nation of one's origin in the progeny especially in a non-native land is very strong in the parents, yet, the need to parallelely propagate the knowledge and love of other religions and regions and lingual sensitivity to others is of no lesser importance.