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Help Employees Master English - Sound Language Skills Are Necessary For Productive Business Activities

By: Dr Nhlanhla Thwala

South Africans are not very good at it, but we all want to be proficient in writing and speaking English. Although the country has 11 official languages, it is English which takes pole position when it comes to the language of choice in the work place.

Talents and skills that are the lifeblood of any business also have to be matched by a functional use of a language that binds all co-workers in a common purpose: their own personal career path and the business bottom line. Many human resource managers can testify to the one problem that is uniquely South African - a failure to identify, in good time, shortcomings in a candidate’s ability to communicate effectively in one or other language.

The incumbent has a CV with all the right credentials. A few checks reveal that the applicant has an impressive array of past experience and business acumen. All the right references are there and it is just a matter of rounding off the package to the nearest hundred thousand. A few cameo appearances on the global stage of financial hubris make the choice that much easier to make. Signed, sealed and delivered.

But at this point it is simply too late to discover that the one flaw the candidate possesses is a poor grasp and use of English.

There is a certain coyness that prevents us from saying, “Your English is not up to scratch,” because we don’t want to come across as judgmental.

Yet HR people could make things so much easier for themselves by first assessing the candidate’s ability to use English before putting them out there. Across the continent is spread a thin band of people who have it: a good understanding of English and how to get it across in writing or in the spoken word. They’re a minority, of course, and yet what they have is what most people want.

A recent survey of 6,000 workers at Anglo Platinum Mines revealed that 90 percent of the workers wanted English to be the language of the workplace. Why? As a norm, people accord prestige to one particular language, and English enjoys this prestige. It gives people pride, is used in most jobs, in banks, and even in getting a licence. It is everywhere, and the thinking is that in order for me to be a full participant in the economy, I have to speak English. It provides access to information, even safety, such as when you have to call the police.

We could debate the wrongs of the past and how on earth we came to heap so much prestige on this language right up until 2010 comes along, but more on this linguistic nightmare later. Companies could make matters that much easier for themselves by involving workers and unions in determining the language of choice in the work place, and sticking to it. By doing evaluations on each worker in relation to the language proficiency needed in each category of employment, the business of beefing up competency can then begin through language training.

But how proficient should a person be in the company’s chosen language? Proficient enough that people don’t whisper about you behind your back is probably the best answer. If you can’t express yourself well, then it will count against you.

The unfortunate part about having 11 official languages is that they are not treated equally and that there is no punishment for those who fail to comply by omitting vital text from packaging and contractual documents. They’re supposed to be equal but they are not. Medicine is still packaged with dosage instructions only in English and Afrikaans, yet everything you buy from the European Union has all instructions in every EU language. Comprehendo?

Rather than bemoan the fact the so many businesses get away with trampling on the linguistic rights of different groups in our country, businesses should rather exploit the language gap and make sure that language proficiency is what sets them apart from their competitors. Bringing a second or third language into an already functional operation can only benefit the entire work force by enhancing confidence and capability.

All businesses should be getting serious about being multi-lingual, not just because it is the right thing to do for those workers who do not have English as their mother tongue, but because it also makes good business sense.

At gold mines, for instance, it has been a long established norm that the workers communicate in Xhosa and Zulu, with a smattering of Fanagalo (a pidgin language created specifically for this purpose) thrown in. This makes it easier for all workers to know what is going on and what is required of them on each shift. Anglo Platinum Mine workers, on the other hand, can be communicating in anything up to 30 languages at the same time, creating a definite safety challenge. A solution was to use words and pictures to teach English and Sepedi instructions to workers in the eastern sector. The Western sector of the operation was given training in English and Setswana, the majority mother tongue language. So when a worker shouts, “Ntuse!” everyone knows it is a scream for help.

One of the impacts of the HIV/Aids pandemic has been the realisation that it is vital to keep workers productive, not just for their particular job description, but because of a “secondary” role of “mediator” communicators.

Because communication not only happens from the top down, companies have discovered vertical communications can save the day. It is during these question and answer sessions between peers that glaring miscommunications can occur. “Mediator” communicators are the ones who have a good grasp of the instruction, and communicate that to their peers on an ad hoc basis. Losing these key workers could be catastrophic for a high risk industry like mining, and this becomes an added incentive for them to make sure their workers remain productive and are put on antiretroviral drugs when necessary.

With the 2010 Soccer World Cup just over a year away, very little has been done to equip workers with language skills to cater for thousands of tourists speaking a wide variety of languages.

We are not preparing by equipping ourselves with the linguistic skills that the rest of the world requires for a World Cup. For example, when Barcelona played here against Sundowns, there was not one interview conducted with the (Spanish-speaking) players. So how will our media communicate with the world’s players? Are we going to hire at great expense interpreters for those heady days?

My mentor, the late Professor Phillip Muthibwe of Uganda, instilled in me the importance of language along with developing one’s own voice. He said the trick about language and voice is that they go together. Reading gradually increases the vocabulary and range of expressions one can understand. Paraphrasing what you read (saying it in your own words) as a matther of practice eventually sees the ideas of others becoming part of your own narrative. And when that happens not only does your language improve, but you are able to develop a voice of your own albeit influenced by what you read.

It was at school that I discovered the up-side of peer pressure when it is exerted at the right time to impress the importance of speaking the English language well. When debates were being conducted in the school hall, all the boys would take their belts off their trousers and fold them in two between their closed fists. If anyone on stage “broke” the language with a clumsy utterance, the boys would all snap their belts in unison, making it clear that there would be no “murder” of the English language on that day.

Even without a true language champion, or for that matter, a language institute dedicated to promoting language use and language research which many countries boast, South Africans can and will lead the continent on the road to discovery by opening their mouths and saying, “We understand each other”.

Dr Nhlanhla Thwala is the former Director of Wits Language School (www.witslanguageschool.com).