Language practices in business

The specific perspective of language practices research

It should be clear by now that many of the phenomena referred to as practices also belong, if seen from a slightly different perspective, to the needs and policies realms. So let us specify what this different perspective could be. Language practices in companies are at once the manifestation and the concrete answer to language needs, as well as the empirical basis and the field of action of corporate language policies. Thus, they encompass, in our definition, all choices of language or linguistic variety involved in concrete communicative acts and habits (i.e., oral or written interaction among organisational members, or between these and the company’s external stakeholders), but also human-resource management instruments (recruiting, training) dealing with language competences/resources.

What, then, are the questions to be posed by research into linguistic practices in business? Here are some suggestions (Lavric 2008c: 43): How do companies/ organisations deal with the problem of language needs and use? Which languages and varieties are really employed in business life, by whom, with whom, in which situations and on which media? Why do companies possess, or lack the necessary competences? How do the different actors (management, employees) intervene in the design of daily practices? How far does real language practice in the company/ organisation coincide with the official language policy (if there is one)? Does language use in companies/organisations follow meaningful patterns, and, if so, on what principles are these based? Is it possible to identify and describe something like “best practices”, and what could be the criteria for doing so?

As regards methodology, language practices are, by their very nature, susceptible to study by observation or participant observation. Researchers can (i) observe the field, (ii) observe it while at the same time working in it, or (iii), they can ask participants - employees or other actors - to observe their own language practices and pass on their perceptions. The last is often done by means of qualitative interviews (or, sometimes, questionnaires). However, in this case researchers should be aware of the self-report bias inherent in the method, and of the fact that they are not accessing language practices directly, but rather self-perceptions and participant perceptions of such practices.[1] (See also Chapter 12 on language needs in business).

To the above discussion of practices and policies, we now add a list of areas of business communication with their corresponding actors. Menz and Stahl (2008: 136) distinguish five arenas of communication for a company: the internal arena, the market arena, the financial arena, the public arena and the media arena. The internal arena comprises all communication within the company or, for groups of companies, between headquarters and subsidiaries, and among subsidiaries. The market arena concerns not only sales - to sales agents and other distributors as well as to customers - but also purchases (the latter often neglected in language policies). The financial arena comprises communication with banks and financial markets. The public arena includes communication with state and regional institutions. Along with the media arena, it is also concerned with the company’s positioning in society as a whole, its communication with politicians, journalists and the wider public. Indeed, the node constituted by the enterprise is surrounded by a veritable network of relations and structures, whose branches and links are determined by power relations, and hence by differing requirements for (linguistic) compliance and adaptation.

Language practices are influenced by this organisational environment and by their relationship with policies. They may sometimes merely represent employees’ linguistic habits or they may follow and reflect explicit and/or implicit language policies (for the distinction, see Section 3.4). On occasion, they lead to the formulation of new goals for organisational language policy, and the implementation of new policy measures. Therefore, practices may either be shaped by the goals of an organisational policy - in such cases, they usually reflect language needs already met - or they may contradict policy goals, implicit or explicit. In the latter case, they could indicate needs perceived to be unmet. In either instance, language practices are ways to resolve problems in corporate communication situations, internal or external. They stem from more or less spontaneous linguistic choices in concrete linguistic contact situations between organisational stakeholders (e.g., employees, customers, suppliers).

  • [1] The publications by Ludi in the frame of the DYLAN project (e.g., Ludi et al. 2009) do not speak oflinguistic needs and practices, but of their representations and of the discourses and perceptionsconcerning language use. The same is true of Bothorel-Witz and Tsamadou-Jacoberger (2012),dealing with companies in Alsace, as well as Millar, Cifuentes, and Jensen (2012), whose title (“Theperception of language needs in Danish companies: Representations and repercussions”) makes itclear that deal with the issue of needs “from the perspective of social representation”. For them,needs are “subjective constructions, being perceived and given substance by actors in context”(pp. 76-77).
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