Social capital and ethnic diversity at work: the role of language learning

fireI’m extremely interested in the relationship between social capital and ethnic diversity. Put simply, the standard hypothesis is that we find it easier to build trusting relationships with people who share similar characteristics to ourselves. Robert Putnam, the doyen of social capital scholars, wrote in 2007 that residents in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods tend to ‘hunker down’, a contention that he supported with abundant evidence (his article is available here).

And now along comes a rather good study of linguistic diversity in the workplace. People use language in the workplace not just to communicate about the tasks they have to complete, but also to build bridges with one another through small talk, gossip and humour, and displaying trust by disclosing ‘private’ information about themselves.

While linguistic diversity might not disrupt work that involves routine and simple tasks, this study shows that it has wider effects for relationships between different groups of workers. The author, Frederik Thuesen, concludes that ‘in low-skill workplaces characterised by linguistic diversity, communication problems have a small impact on the completion of work tasks but a large impact on social relations’.

So talk really matters.Thuesen concludes that employers and trade unions can and should do more to promote language learning, as well as providing intercultural training for majority workers. He also quotes the example of a supermarket firm which used Facebook to promote inter-cultural dialogue among cashiers. And of course government can help create a supportive environment, not least by promoting language learning and ensuring the quality of provision.

The abstract for Thueson's article

The abstract for Thueson’s article

Of course, workers themselves can also intervene, for better or for worse. I certainly don’t assume that migrants and minorities are passive victims of everything society throws at them; I’ve written before about the attempt to build a mosque that is designed to promote trust and remove suspicion, a development that I very much welcome. But above all it is for the host society, and particularly its government, to ensure that those who come from other cultures are able to contribute effectively, and to build bonds with their new compatriots.




1 thought on “Social capital and ethnic diversity at work: the role of language learning

  1. I came to this article immediately after listening to a lecture by Naom Chomsky and I felt that Chomsky would have found no surprise in the incident quoted. For Chomsky the mind is not the accumulation of experiences but something quite different. The mind from its beginning is there to communicate, both in language and in relationship. It has periods of growth. A pre-ten year old child will quickly learn another language while an adult more academic will struggle.He stressed the mind came with a capacity to communicate and understand its surroundings.He quoted the case of a school for deaf and dumb children where the staff attempted to teach communication solely by lip reading. A visitor found that when the teacher was not facing them they communicated by a sign language that they had devised themselves.
    I would suggest that the hunkering down is a learned response and if there was a mixed community where children from an early age lived together without ideas being pushed at them by older people then there would not any hunkering down.I read a case recently of a family where the children were adopted and both white and coloured and a dark skinned girl only felt different when she became an adolescent.

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