Multilingualism in business: Language policies and practices

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Language practices in business
  • 3. Language policies in business
  • 4. Insights from other selected disciplines
  • 5. Conclusion


Today’s working environments are often culturally heterogeneous and linguistically diverse. As a result, language-policy-related decisions affect employees in their daily work, whether directly or indirectly. The current research interest in multilingual business contexts, and in people working within them, is broad and highly interdisciplinary. Traditionally, multilingual phenomena have been an object of study for socio- and contact linguistics, but also for psychology, sociology, ethnology and anthropology, with researchers from these disciplines occasionally investigating linguistic contact situations in organisations through very different theoretical lenses and with very different empirical instruments. In this contribution we follow a linguistic approach, but we try also to think out of the box and learn from research done elsewhere.

In the business context, language-policy decisions emerging from multilingual working environments are a field of study within applied (socio)linguistics, but not only there. Other disciplines in which multilingualism in business is being researched are management and organisation studies, political science, and economics. In fact, researchers from all those fields have discovered a common research topic: language and languages policies in businesses and the economy. We therefore begin this chapter by introducing the concept of language practices in business and presenting some questions, research and findings from a (socio)linguistic perspective. Next, we define the central concepts in the realm of corporate language policies and present the related linguistic research. We then widen our scope to continue with some findings from the other disciplines mentioned above. Finally, we propose some further directions for future research based on the state of the art presented in this chapter.

Throughout, we try to link language policies and practices to - and, at the same time, demarcate them from - the topic of language needs treated in Chapter 12. In fact, language needs, policies and practices are all highly intertwined (see Fig. 13.1).

DOI 10.1515/9781614514862-013

Attempting to separate the concepts is thus somewhat artificial. If companies strive for a systematic approach to language policy (e.g., the choice of a common corporate language, language-related declarations in the mission statement), they will have to base their considerations on a profound language needs analysis including the organisational and individual level (an example of the link between needs and policies). Lived linguistic practices reflect the language needs met within a company, whereas desired linguistic practices would address unmet needs (an example of the link between needs and practices). If companies do not have an explicit language policy, they will certainly have an implicit one (see Section 3.4 below) which impacts on language practices and vice versa (an example of the link between policies and practices). Of course, in specific businesses we may observe contradictions between the three areas, just as we may find cases where policies, practices and needs are perfectly aligned.

Triangular relationship between language policies, practices and needs

Figure 13.1: Triangular relationship between language policies, practices and needs

Moreover, much published literature on languages in business does not clearly separate needs, policies and practices. Research can focus primarily on only one of the three aspects, but it will inevitably touch on the three domains and produce closely related findings in them all. Therefore Chapters 12 and 13 are complementary, and the respective bibliographies are of potential interest for researchers interested in any of the three aspects.

Let us start here with a provisional distinction between language policies and practices, that is, some ideas about possible distinctions, with the aim of preparing the ground for further reflections. At first sight, one would be inclined to draw the line between language policies and practices on the basis of distinctions such as the following:

  • - Purposeful vs. unintended;
  • - Long/medium-term vs. ad hoc;
  • - Oriented towards the future vs. grounded in the past;
  • - Concerning a whole company vs. concerning an individual or a small group;
  • - Explicitness vs. implicitness;
  • - Coming from the management (top-down) vs. emerging from the staff (bottom-up).

As a first approximation, one could thus say that the more an action or a choice is purposeful, long-term, future-oriented, company-wide, explicit and top-down, the more it is policy; while the more it is non-reflected, ad hoc, individual, implicit, and bottom-up, the more it is practice.

But that is not the way the problem is being approached in current research about languages in business. As we will see below (Section 3), research about language policies in companies and organisations has already come to include all the non-purposeful, ad hoc, past-grounded, small-scale, implicit aspects of language choice and usage, and to define and analyse them as types of policy. This has made policies research more interesting and complex but left hardly any space for practices research, making it a subdomain of the policies realm.

Here we will suggest and adopt another type of approach that considers the policies-practices dichotomy mainly a difference in viewpoint. Under the title of practices (Section 2), we will present the descriptive aspects of sociolinguistic studies concerned mainly with the actual language use of people working in international business(es), and their explanations of that use. This will provide us with a large pool of empirical data giving a very concrete idea of the phenomena that policies- and-practices research is about.

Then, under the title of policies (Section 3), we will present research on the plans, motivations and ideologies being developed in the language sector by actors ranging from state to business, and from management to individual employees. These studies include a fine-grained discussion on terminological issues and an interesting ongoing debate on the limits of the policies concept in business language, as well as ethical and political considerations about the relationship of language and power, a central research issue of critical currents in applied linguistics (cf. Pennycook 2001).

Following that, we will call on other disciplines such as management and organisation studies and economics (Section 4), in order to consider the language question against alternative backgrounds with a view to shedding new light on certain issues. These perspectives could also considerably enrich the sociolinguistic approaches - just as, conversely, sociolinguistic concepts and findings could usefully receive greater attention in management and economics studies relating to languages (Section 5).

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