Saturday, June 26, 2010


I recently saw on TV the story of 3 Filipina nurses and a secretary who were fired from their jobs for speaking Tagalog.

The Filipinas were said to have violated the English-only language policy of Bon Secours Hospital, located in Baltimore, Maryland. The hospital's rules state that English is the only language to be spoken in the emergency room.

The company can, indeed, point out that the nurses agreed to this rule. Although how the secretary could have possibly violated this boggles the mind. And a lawyer representing the Filipinas has filed a complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This will hopefully settle whether the 4 women were terminated with just cause or not.

But there has to be a case filed regarding single language policies in workplaces. I understand the importance of good communication in the emergency room, where life often hangs in the balance. But unless medical personnel are communicating in Tagalog while attending to a patient who's in a life or death situation, we have to look at the intention of the speaker. If speaking Tagalog results in miscommunication that results in harm to a patient, by all means, fire the offending employee. "Do no harm," right? But if it's casual talk directed to another Tagalog speaking person, any complaint seems to reek of either insecurity or, worse, xenophobia.

I would think an emergency room produces a stressful atmosphere, whether there's a patient or not. Hearing a familiar sound can lessen stress.

What would be more interesting in the nurses' situation is if a case is filed in court to test where single language policies stand in the realm of liberties as, according to the news article:

This is not the first time hospital workers have been fired or disciplined for speaking in a language other than English.

In 2005, the EEOC led a federal law suit against the Highland Hospital in Rochester, New York on behalf of five Hispanic housekeepers.

They were sanctioned after they were overheard saying “hasta la vista” or goodbye as they were leaving work.

The EEOC said the English-only rule was unlawful and violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits job discrimination based on a person’s race, sex or national origin.

The United States, and Maryland, in particular, has no official language. Clearly, English is the dominant language in the US. And migrant workers should be responsible enough to master it before heading there. But in the land of the free, the nation that prides itself on becoming a superpower through the hardwork of immigrant forefathers, languages such as Spanish, Mandarin, and (yes) Tagalog have a place alongside English (even though not anywhere near as prominent). There is wisdom in that as the best and most creative, move innovative, most course-of-history-changing ideas of this generation may not necessarily be spoken in English.

As for the politeness of speaking in a foreign language in a normal workplace setting, it really depends on how and why it is spoken. If two people are speaking in Tagalog, parties outside the conversation shouldn't be complaining. They're not being spoken to, and they have no business listening in. Impoliteness exists when there is a group conversation involving non-Tagalog speakers and 2 or more Filipinos talking in Tagalog. There is impoliteness (and idiocy) when a Filipino speaks Tagalog directly to a person who doesn't understand it. (Baka nga naman minumura na siya.)

Some may argue that the nurses should not have violated the hospital's policy in the first place (if they actually did). Fine, if they lose their labor case, then they certainly should lose their jobs. But single language policies deserve to be scrutinized in an academic manner in order to produce judicial decisions that can serve as basis in future cases, and can be used in the judiciaries of other countries. "Jim Crow laws" were policy once as well. Until some black people decided that they didn't want to sit at the back of the bus or go to Blacks-only schools. We all know what happened after that.


I'm not knocking on the English language. I love it. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I actually love it more and speak it better than my precious Tagalog. Heck, this blog is in English, only sprinkled with Tagalog here and there.

In fact, I don't really see why Filipinos think of English as a foreign language. It's an official language, alongside Filipino, according to the Philippine Constitution. I don't see why school officials traditionally look down on it, or ban it, during "Linggo ng Wika." During that week, among Philippine languages, English plays the role of the family member that we hide during family parties because we are embarrassed about him for some strange reason. Even though he's the guy that brings in money for the family (i.e. call centers, OFWs hired due to their proficiency in English).

It's our language too, people. We speak it and it has roots in our history. Ultra-nationalists will tell you it was imposed on us by colonizers. Funny how we easily mastered something that was "imposed" upon us, contrary to historical evidence that despite invasions, conquests, and colonizations, nations don't usually accept languages they don't want. One can argue all he wants about "colonial mentality." But English really does give us an advantage, especially for our migrant workers.

I remember an instance when I was in a hotel here in the country where I'm posted. It's one of the premiere hotels here, so it's where most of the foreigners stay in. There happened to be an international conference going on then, so the place was packed. At the check-in counter, there were several receptionists who handle the lines of guests needing service. As it turned out, one of them was a Filipina. And all, yes all, the guests were in her line despite the fact that they can talk to the other receptionists. The reason was that the Filipina spoke fluent English which made communication easier for the delegates. I congratulated her for her effort, but worried a bit for the girl.


I've personally had an experience with the English-only rule. I'm a former call center agent. I happened to work once for a company who instituted the rule not only in the operation floor but also in the pantry and hallway. They even decreed that the manong guards had to "spokening dollar," as Filipinos like to say.

I asked one of the managers what was the rationale behind this. He said that people who went to the pantry or came from another place might get lulled into talking in Tagalog on the phone if they speak it in the office. I told him that that was absurd and that the agents were professional enough not to let their guard down while on the phone, and that we knew the penalty for doing so. I added that they should at least prove there is a correlation between speaking in Tagalog in the pantry and agents blurting out Tagalog while on the line. I got the usual response of "it's company policy."

I know most Americans get annoyed when they learn that the person they are speaking to on the phone is a Filipino (or non-American in general). Being mischievous, I needled the manager further. I asked what was wrong with speaking Tagalog in the operation floor, while not on the phone of course.

He said the caller may hear someone speaking in Tagalog in the background and get mad, then ask where the agent is located. I asked why that was so bad. He told me to stick to the procedure.

The "procedure" went something like this:

Caller: Where are you from?
Agent: I work for (name of company).
Caller: Yeah, but where are you located?
Agent: (name of company) is located in (address of company).

(you're expected to hold the line until the caller gets really furious, and then...)

Caller: Where are you from? You're not American?
Agent: I work for (name of local company), who provides service for (name of company). We are located in (name of city), Philippines.
Caller: (click)
Agent: Hello? Hello?

I asked if he considered the procedure lying. He said it was not. The script was well-thought of before being taught to agents, he added. I asked why they were worried so much about getting customers mad and yet continue to outsource. I, of course, knew the real answer: It's the economy, stupid. The answer I got: silence and an angry look.

There went my chances for any career advancement with that company. But boy, it was worth it.

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