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.



  • I come across good students from premier institutes not very comfortable speaking in English. As an interviewer, I find it convenient to switch to Tamil and make it comfortable for the candidate. It is unfair to judge people on their inability to speak English. They sure need good communication skills, not necessarily in English. I am fine with Tamil, Telugu or Hindi as long the communication goes on.
    I speak in English mostly out of habit and not because I think it is the only professional language. I had worked in environments where English was the only common language everyone could understand. If there can be an environment where almost everyone can speak a common native language, why not speak in that native language?

    By Blogger Sridhar, at 12:35 PM  

  • This kind of comments come mostly from folks who have a misplaced sense of priority in respecting the opinions of others. I have noticed that this prejudicial comments come against telugu and tamil speaking folks. If you go into a group which is predominantly Hindi speaking, they rant in Hindi without even a slightest hint of courtesy to guy from South who in certain cases might not have learnt the language. The common argument to this is they say it is a national language. It is ok one gets to Hindi, but it is unprofessional if one speaks in Tamil or Telugu. This to be racist to some extent. Racism is ingrained in these folks. To them English is acceptable as they place it in a higher plane than Hindi and hence it is acceptable and so is Hindi. Whereas any other language is below the plane of Hindi and hence is unprofessional. This is not a matter of education, but a matter of perception and outlook that has to change across India.

    By Blogger Vamsi Krishna, at 6:04 PM  

  • I personally feel that this is correlated at multiple levels given the fact that there is an increased paranoia towards aping the west!

    I think one must not lose his individuality but the reality is "english" is increasingly becoming the language of the world. So everyone should take it seriously if one has to express himself globally.

    The classic example that comes to my mind is the famous malayalam movie director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan who has directed only 10 films till now over a span of 30 years!! He has never ventured to direct outside off his native medium(malayalam) because he is clear about about his priorities! Similarly if we do not work in a global world we are actually fine but in a flat world it is important to give "english" some degree of seriousness.

    There is a thin line here between racism, professionalism and just being expressive. If people are expressive in one non-native medium they will be fine and things would be okay!

    I have seen so many prospective candidates typing SMS english over emails and that bugs me to no end! I think its important to be know where to be draw that line and that is where it becomes confusing!


    By Blogger Prakash Gurumoorthy, at 10:23 AM  

  • Prakash, Sridhar, Vamsi,
    Thanks for your comments.
    Prakash - I am not sure what "taking it serious" means. How far should we take it serious? That is my question. I accept that English is the sole medium of communication between the peoples of the world. What I do NOT accept is that I should therefore speak in English wherever I want to be taken seriously. That is a personal judgement - if I want to be heard among my audience, I should choose the RIGHT language. Many times that language may not be English. In a normal day I speak with more people who know Tamil. In my judgement it is absolutely alright to talk to them in Tamil.
    You mentioned Adoor - Adoor is an artist and has chosen the language that conveys best his artistry. It would be really odd to make a rural Malayalam movie with artists speaking in English. In this case, Adoor has not made a decision based on PRIORITIES. He has made it based on common sense - he knows the Malayalam setting best and he knows his stories are best conveyed by artists talking Malayalam and therefore, his movies end up as Malayalam movies. It is not because he has taken some principled stand to stick to Malayalam.
    My point is we all should do the same - our choices in communicating with our audience should be based on common sense - not because of some global trend.

    By Blogger Ramiah Ariya, at 3:09 AM  

  • Ram
    I totally agree with you. There is a false notion among the people that talking in Tamil (or native)Language in any meeting or conference is not professional. I dont think so, Language is just a medium of communication. Everything lies is what you deliver, language is not at all a matter. People started talking in English and they have developed a culture. If someone comes and says something in tamil, he or she is considered Dumb. This should be changed. Am not going against English, am just against that Devloper who put forth this arguement.
    Only way we can achieve this is like, we shoudl start implementing. We should get ourselves used to this, by this way we can get rid of this notion.

    By Anonymous Bala, at 5:47 AM  

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