Language needs: Definitions and typology, learners’ vs. business perspective

Before dealing with the existing definitions of language needs, we will take a closer look at the different meanings of need(s) in general. This word is used as a technical

DOI 10.1515/9781614514862-012

term in a series of disciplines. In psychology, for example, the famous “hierarchy of needs” (Maslow 1970) defines needs as goals that are yet to be satisfied. This disjunction creates tensions and hence motivates people to put effort into meeting the unattained goals. And in business studies, various types of needs - business, consumer, staff and training - are all of central importance. According to Schuler (1992: 19), “strategic business needs [...] reflect management’s overall plan for survival, growth, adaptability, and profitability”. In marketing, “consumer needs” are supposed to be studied and analysed carefully in order to ensure their satisfaction. In human resource management, “staff needs” relate to the difference between the future and current number of staff required by an organisation, in quantitative terms; “training needs”, in contrast, refer to the qualitative aspect of staff needs, from both individual and organisational perspectives (Berthel and Becker 2013: 298-311; Bruhn 2014:13-25). In general, business studies scholars distinguish between individual needs (i.e., individual wants) and organisational needs (i.e., demands, goals and requirements of the organisation).

Despite the widespread use of the term needs in academic language, as yet no general approach has emerged that would summarise and differentiate all its existing and potential usages in the various scientific communities. At first sight, the Oxford Dictionaries (n.d.) are not of a great help either. They define the noun need as a “thing that is wanted or required”. The entry on the corresponding verb to need seems more precise: “to require (something) because it is essential or very important rather than just desirable”. This would suggest, for example, that having every manager speak twenty languages would not be a need in the narrower sense since, although perhaps “desirable”, this could hardly be seen as necessary or even important.

From a social-constructionist point of view, of course, “necessary” and “desirable” lie at two ends of a continuum. Moreover, a specific group that decides on its needs (language or other) simultaneously decides, at least implicitly, on their own understanding of “need”. The discourse about (language) needs not only describes but also co-constitutes them. Hence in this sense language needs can only be assessed subjectively. Nevertheless, we can have recourse to other, more “objective” data such as turnover in a certain national market. It is in this light that Vandermeeren (2005: 162) distinguishes between the objective and subjective language needs of businesses by means of the following criteria: “frequency of contact with a certain country indicates objective need, [whereas] informants’ perception of foreign language need indicates subjective need ”.

The distinction between “subjective” and “objective” needs has been defined not only for companies but also for language learners (cf. Brindley 1989: 70). Thus, “to be more confident when dealing with visitors from abroad” is an example of a subjective need, as distinguished from the objective need “to be able to show visitors around” (Huhta et al. 2013: 12). Hutchinson and Waters (1987) differentiate between “target needs” and “learning needs”. According to them, the former are the skills to be achieved, while the latter comprise the steps necessary to acquire those skills. Berwick (1989: 55) distinguishes between “felt needs” and “perceived needs”, as learners are often aware of only some of their learning requirements (or have false expectations in general) and depend on teachers or language planners to provide a more realistic assessment.

Another important point to address is the distinction between met and unmet needs. In effect, a “need” is very often seen as something that is still missing: “The gap between what is and what should be” (Brindley 1989: 65). But, for instance, the sentence I need glasses for reading can be uttered either by a person who has never possessed glasses or by one wearing a pair at the moment of happily reading a newspaper. Thus a need remains a need even when it is momentarily met/satisfied. (Terminologically speaking, in motivational theory - Maslow 1970 - satisfied is preferred, whereas applied linguists - Vandermeeren 1998 and 2005 - prefer the expression met needs.) These reflections suggest that there is a broad overlap between what, in business, are considered to be language policies and practices, and what are regarded as language needs. In fact, people in general do what they do because of their necessities. So if you look at what they do, you will know largely what their needs are. In other words, practices can also be regarded - from a needs perspective - as a certain set of needs being met (if this were not the case, businesses would not function). But there will always be some needs that are not met, in part or in full. These are what some tend to consider as “real” needs, being more salient in that they generate a requirement to act differently from before.

We want to emphasise that between a met and an unmet language need in a company, there is usually a scale of half tones and intermediate stages, among which are located the so-called survival and threshold levels. Suppose, for example, that complicated technical details must be explained to a Russian customer. Having this done by an employee who speaks severely broken Russian, supported by body gestures, is certainly not the ideal solution. But it might be the cheapest one (cost/ benefit, or efficiency aspect), and it might work sufficiently well to get the job done (effectiveness aspect), albeit with some mishaps, misunderstandings, and the use of trial and error. In this case, the language needs are certainly not met completely. We could say that the situation is characterised by a certain portion of communication needs being met, whereas another (important) portion remains unmet.

Among unmet language needs, some may be clearly perceived by the participants, while others remain unperceived. (We prefer the terms perceived / unperceived to the dichotomy conscious / unconscious employed by Vandermeeren 2005, because the latter carries a certain psychological connotation.) According to Vandermeeren (2005: 162), an unperceived need exists if “[c]ompanies who are in regular business contact with a certain country [. . .] claim that it is not or only occasionally necessary for them to use that country’s language”. However, if a language need is unperceived, who may decide, and on what grounds, whether it really exists? This question is highly relevant for research methodology (as addressed in Section 4 below).

Be they objective or subjective, met or unmet, perceived or unperceived, (business) language needs can be considered and studied from various different angles. We first have to decide which languages are considered as “necessary”, and then, in further steps, which specific language competences and proficiency levels are “needed” (and: by whom, when, where, in what situation...). In doing so, we must also choose the perspective(s) we are interested in (following and adapting Huhta et al. 2013:13) and define whose needs we are referring to: those of an individual (the user/ speaker/learner/single employee), of a group (of learners, of professionals, etc.), of the workplace/company/organisation; or even those of the whole country or society. And we might then also ask who defines each of these needs, and how the different types and levels of needs correlate.

For the most part, current linguistic-didactical definitions of “language needs” only take into account a single perspective, namely that of the individual as language learner, or of language learners as a homogeneous group, for whom a curriculum is to be designed. See for example both Richterich’s seminal work from 1972 and Richterich and Chancerel (1978), as well as the Council of Europe’s definition of “language needs” that builds upon their work: “[T]his term refers to the linguistic resources which learners need in order successfully to cope with the forms of communication in which they are going to be involved”[1] (Council of Europe s.a.). “Linguistic resources” in this sense can be understood either as a certain level of specific language and communication competences in a given language, or as the languages themselves, although most definitions of “language needs” do not consider the latter. Actually, “needs” typically refer to those necessities that arise after a given language has already been chosen. See, for example, one of the earliest definitions by Hutchinson and Waters (1987: 54), who imply that a language has already been chosen before they define “language needs” as “the ability to comprehend and/or produce the linguistic features of the target situation”.

This reference to the “target situation” tells us that in a language needs analysis, the first step (following the selection of a language) is to determine in which target situation(s) learners are likely to use the chosen language. The next is to list the linguistic tools that are commonly used in such situations. Thus the text by the Council of Europe quoted above states further: “These needs (and hence these communication situations) are identified as part of a specific process which consists of gathering together the information required to assess what uses will actually be made of the language learnt and thereby determine what types of content should be taught on a priority basis.” (Council of Europe s.a.). As mentioned previously, the perspective expressed in such definitions is clearly that of an individual learner or of a language class tailored to learners’ needs, which makes analysis of such needs primarily a part of, or a prerequisite for the design of curricula for specific learner groups (see below, Section 5).

As far as the professional language needs of companies or organisations are concerned, the target situations are determined by the activities in which a particular company engages or by the tasks typical of certain positions in a particular organisation. Therefore, language needs analysis must also take into account the perspective of an individual company. This does not necessarily imply the design of a curriculum for an internal language course; apart from staff training, there are other ways to react to a language need detected in the enterprise (e.g., by recruiting new staff, by purchasing additional language services, by delegating the language problem to subsidiary companies, by standardisation in the form of a lingua franca; see also Chapter 13 on language policies and practices). If the needs analysis is carried out at the enterprise’s own request, it can take the form of a “language audit” (or “linguistic audit”, see, e.g., Reeves and Wright 1996; Koster 2004). Alternatively, the initiative may come from outside the company - from a national or supranational body, or a research institution. In such a case, the resultant studies may be less concerned with possible applications and may be conducted out of sheer scientific curiosity.

With regard to methodology, we can find single case studies that use interviews and/or participant observation; here, of course, a number of similar studies will be necessary if general conclusions are to be drawn. On the other hand, some large, questionnaire-based studies have been conducted with the aim of providing an overview of the language needs in a certain geographical area (sometimes only for companies of a certain size or a particular sector). For more details, see Section 4 below. Both these methods have a common goal and allow the following rough definition of language needs (analysis) as seen by companies/organisations: (the study of) those languages that are and/or should be used in organisations (companies, etc.) to meet their internal and external communication requirements, in terms of language/variety choice, level of competence, and tasks/situations to be covered. Clearly, the learner-oriented and organisation-oriented aspects of language needs analysis are closely connected. For instance, the results of a needs analysis based on organisations’ needs should have an impact on the curriculum design of language courses in schools, universities, etc., as well as on national and/or local language policies.

In both perspectives, we have to deal with a hierarchy of layers, of strata. First, there is the layer of teaching/learning contexts. An individual who learns a language, or who uses it in her/his profession, can be ascribed certain types of needs, At the same time, in more abstract terms, there are also the needs of whole groups of learners, of a class or course, or even of larger social groups such as college students in general, students of business colleges and business schools, language or translation students, etc. However, the language needs of individuals and groups can also be envisaged outside teaching/learning contexts. For example, a second - more private - hierarchy comprises language needs in families, in neighbourhoods, in peer groups and in other social, political or religious environments. A third hierarchy is work-based and ranges from the language needs of a particular position to those of a whole department, of a company, of a corporate group, of an economic sector, of the whole economy, etc. Fourth, from a geographical perspective, one may be interested in the language needs of a certain district, of a city, a region and a whole country. Last but not least, it is also possible to transcend the level of a single country and take into account supranational entities, such as the EU. On this level too, all four hierarchies mentioned can be found (the learning, the private, the work-based/economic, and the geographical; see Table 12.1).

Furthermore, we must take into account the fact that language needs are widely diversified on all levels, from the individual to the supra-individual, organisational, etc. Different languages, language registers and partial competences may be relevant for different communication situations or domains. In sociolinguistics, the term domain was introduced by Joshua Fishman (1972) to denote a type of human activity or situation - classified according to the criteria place, role-relationship and topic - that correlates with a certain language, variety or register choice. Thus one and the same individual or group might speak one language or variant in religious contexts, another in the family, a third at school or work and yet another in the peer group or among friends. The existence of such domains explains many of the code switches and code choices that occur in any kind of speech community. This “domain” approach is the “practices” correlate of what we describe here under a “needs” perspective. Table 12.1 gives an overview of the various perspectives and levels. Note that distinctions between different items are not always clear-cut and that the table is not meant to be exhaustive.

An example can serve to illustrate the interrelations between the various perspectives and levels of language needs in business contexts described above (individual/ organisation/national economy). Many companies have a general demand for English-language skills, which translates into a corresponding demand for, and interest in, English language education among “individual” secondary school students. This, in turn, makes it necessary to develop language policies on a national level, such as the incorporation of English language classes in secondary and tertiary education. In many cases, however, the relationship between business demands, educational offers and individual interests is more complex, as is illustrated by an example from the Austrian context. In Austria, French is still the most frequently taught second foreign language, followed by Italian and Spanish. Although interest in Spanish has increased over the last few decades, it is offered as an option only in some schools, and there mostly as a third language (Back 2004:163). These arrangements reflect the fact that Austria trades more with French-speaking countries than

Table 12.1: Factors influencing language needs: Perspectives and levels

Perspectives * Levels Ф



Private & Social Perspectives

Job & Work Perspectives






school class, students in a language class

human being, citizen family, friends, neighbours

employee, manager department, members of a project team, board of directors, works council

resident/inhabitant neighbourhood, rural community


educational institution (e.g., school, university)

specific social group, subculture


town/city, rural district

Several similar organisations

all secondary schools, all universities in a country

social classes, lifestyles, etc.

business sector

region, federal provinces/states

State, Society

education system of a country


economy of a country

territory of a country



education policy of the EU

EU as a societal actor

EU as an economic actor

EU territory as a geographical unit

with the Spanish-speaking world, but not Italy’s position as a more important trading partner than either group (Back 2004:130). At the same time, Eastern European countries - four of which actually border on Austria - are very important partners with which no single language can be used to facilitate communication. But the various “Eastern” languages play only a minor role in the Austrian education system, which seems disadvantageous in economic terms (even if bilingual migrants from these countries meet a part of the Austrian economy’s language needs).

In the end, the crucial factors in school- or university-related language decisions are not restricted to the economic potential of a certain language or, to put it another way, needs analyses are not inspired by economic considerations alone. Demand and supply on the “language market” (Stegu 2008) are determined not only by economic or work-related interest in particular languages, but also (fortunately!) by the demands of leisure-related and everyday communication, not to mention culture, educational background, tourist interests, etc.

At the state level, language options in secondary schools (which of themselves affect individual pupils’ decisions) are likely to be influenced by other aspects of current circumstances in the country’s education systems. To return to Austria, one such aspect would be the lack of teachers of “Eastern” languages and the excessive number of state-employed French teachers who cannot simply be dismissed for legal reasons. However, private interests or systematic pressures in educational policy are not the focus of this chapter. In the following sections, we turn instead to the particular language needs that arise in business contexts and the methods used to determine them.

  • [1] The Council of Europe goes on to specify: “in the short or medium term”. This limitation oflanguage needs to the short and medium term does not utterly convince us, as it is well knownthat curricula for schools, in particular, have to take into account the long term as well. And evenfor companies, a long-term needs analysis is certainly beneficial and may well be necessary as abasis for drawing up long-term language policies (see Chapter 13 on language policies and practices).
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