Coding, is? Fun!

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Are native languages "unprofessional"?

Early on in Photon, we went to a party and the discussion came around to talking in Tamil at work.
One of the drunk developers felt passionately about this - he said in a meeting we should NEVER talk in Tamil. He said it was unprofessional.
I was surprised by the vehemence of this comment - I said if even one person who spoke in another language is present, this is true. But if a meeting consisted ONLY Tamil speakers, I do not see why it should be unprofessional to speak to each other in that language.
I also argued that if this was true, how far do you take this? Is it okay to speak Tamil in casual corridor meetings or is English mandatory for this? What if two people are talking business by the water cooler - can they talk in Tamil? Or does the English rule apply only when you walk into a conference room?
My point was that this rule was unnatural - and I was not objecting to it because I am a "fanatic" - but because it is contrary to natural behavior.
But, of course, the drunk guy veered completely away into how "even China" was switching to English. And how the whole reason India had succeeded in the IT industry was because of English.
This is a digression here -
China is not "switching" to English - Chinese are learning the English language as a language. They are not learning every subject out there in English - that is, there is no English medium in China; they are learning English as a second language.
This is vastly different from India where the middle and rich classes have lobbied for learning everything in English, taking things to such an extent that kids are actually being punished for talking to each other in their native language during recess. Some schools fine you for talking in the native language.
Whenever somebody raises this, he is branded a cheap fanatic or someone brainwashed by the politicians. I respect Tamil politicians for making this an issue.
Secondly, Indian success in the IT industry also happened because of many, many thousands of studnets who learnt in the native medium but learnt English as an additional language. By claiming English medium as a reason for Indian succcess in IT, I only see the usual attempts of Indian urbanized upper middle classes to corner credit for the IT boom.
Digression ends here
Anyway, that argument was fruitless because the guy ended up blaming Tamils for this "unique" behavior - and I had seen most Indian linguistic communities talk to each other in their language at work. By bringing race into the argument, he lost the argument.
This was an year back - I was thinking about this last week and asked another friend of mine this question - say you went to an interview in a company; the interviewer ascertains your native language; say you are Telugu. The interviewer is also Telugu and proceeds to interview in Telugu.
Would you join that company? Would you consider that unprofessional?
His answer was yes - he would consider it unprofessional and he would reconsider joining that company.
This friend of mine is far more reasonable so I could argue with him. My points were:
1. We use English as a common communication medium. That is the sole purpose. If there exists another common communication medium and if it is your native language, then doesn't it make sense to use that? It will probably relax both of you.
2. What makes English professional and Telugu unprofessional? What causes that judgement? Mind you, I am not talking about an artificiallly constructed "pure" Telugu conversation. If a normal conversation you have with a friend at work can be in Telugu, why can't it happen with a candidate?
I believe the one good reason to not ask the native language of a candidate is because it could result in discrimination. But then HR should not ask for age either (you should not discriminate based on age either). Most candidates will gladly mention even passport numbers in their resumes in India - so why is asking for and conversing in a native language such a bad idea?
I do think my friend is accurate about this - I think most people would react the same way. But I am not able to understand why such an opinion about our native languages exists. I would appreciate if readers can share their views.