What would a bilingual workplace look like?

I have worked in a bilingual organisation. I had to learn a new language (NSZL), and with it, a new cultural paradigm (Deaf culture). It opened my eyes up in different ways than living overseas in countries where English wasn’t the first language of most people.

There’s plenty of interesting resources out there about what bilingual workplaces are like, and what impact bilingualism has for employers, employees and communities.

Two pieces that caught my eye are :

  • Multnomah County Library (USA) working with immigrant communities.”Technical services and bilingual staff have worked together to build library collections in Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Vietnamese. That work has resulted in a 27 percent increase in library materials in these four languages over the past three years. During that same period, usage of these materials has increased 81 percent.” Usage increase.
  • Research by Christofides & Swidinsky (2010), using Canadian census data, to show that bilingual workers earn more than unilingual workers. There are gender differences, as well as regional/geographical differences. Economic benefits.

While there is some NZ research that addresses language & culture in the workplace (but not so much on bilingualism), from the Language in the Workplace project*, there doesn’t appear to be much recent or public discussion about the issue of bilingualism in New Zealand libraries. While libraries may have documents which purport to a bilingual and/or bi-cultural workplace, anecdotal discussions indicate that this has often not been implemented or integrated into the workplace.

I really do believe that New Zealand could lead the way in commiting to making our cultural & educational institutions bilingual, which may also ensure that our workplaces are also truly bi-cultural, and subsequently more widely aware of other cultures. It is a case of making it ordinary to have more than one language used in the workplace. I remember Andrew Green from the National Library of Wales speak at the 2011 LIANZA Conference about how he mostly uses Welsh in his workplace, rather than English, and that was  ordinary for his workplace.

I believe that making it a compulsory component of future training, we increase the depth of understanding of those of us who are collecting, collating, re-purposing, showcasing and sharing our cultural heritage, as well as increasing access for our customers and encouraging wider discussions about our past, our present & our futures in the GLAM and education sectors.

So I do remain hopeful that we can implement this as part of our current LIS & GLAM & educational sector training, as I do believe that the positives heavily outweigh the negatives. It is a commitment to our current customers, our future customers, ourselves and our country. By learning another language, your increase your understanding through a different cultural lens, which also shows that information & knowledge are created, collected, shared & redistributed in different ways. Awareness of this can only be a good thing.

* Note: I was a casual research assistant on this project in my pre-library life.