Overview of language practices research

Research into language practices in business and economics has traditionally taken place in the field of applied linguistics, within a sociolinguistic framework. What is striking about this research is that, while the questions asked and methods used do not vary greatly, its objects are diverse. It investigates, with various thematic focuses, language policies and practices in businesses (and non-profit organisations) of all sizes and structures, and in numerous locations. Thus we find empirical language practices research focusing on:

  • - enterprises and/or languages in a particular territory (e.g., Schweiger 2009 on Czech and Slovak in north-east Austria, Back 2004 on Romance languages in Upper Austria, Minkkinen and Reuter 2001 and Reuter 2003 on German in Scandinavian countries, etc.);
  • - small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) throughout the EU, involving major research projects such as the ELAN-Study (European Commission 2006) and the PIMLICO-Project (European Commission 2011), both funded by the European Commission;
  • - multinational companies and organisations (Ammon 1996; Coulmas 1996; Duchene 2008; Bellak 2014);
  • - the non-profit sector (e.g., Steiner 2014 on football clubs), also in comparison with the for-profit one (Lavric 2009c, 2012a).

In contrast to the corresponding management literature on language policies, which concentrates de facto on Western Europe and the Anglophone world, linguists do not seem to be restricted to a specific geographical context. They are interested in businesses all over the world, also in African, Asian and South-American contexts, and they are working on bigger units and smaller ones, for example, continents, countries, regions and districts. Among research into European organisations, there is a strong concentration on those located in Central Europe (e.g., Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic: Nekvapil and Nekula 2006; Back and Lavric 2009a-b; Nekula, Marx and Sichova 2009; Ludi 2012) or in Romance-speaking countries (Back 2004; Mrazova 2005 and 2009). Recently, there has been greater research interest in the Russian context, with studies on language use and the management strategies of multinationals operating in Russia (Lechner 2010; Garstenauer 2017).

In terms of research topic and focus, we find empirical work about internal and external communication in enterprises (Vollstedt 2002; Harder 2009; Lavric 2012b). More recently, the topic of globalisation has entered academic linguistic discourse in debates about cases of linguistic standardisation (e.g., English only or French only) and non-standardisation, especially in relationship with the introduction of English as a corporate language in multinational companies. Some studies remain mainly descriptive (McAll et al. 2001). Others apply a rather critical approach towards the linguistic and social-economic impacts of language standardisation in organisations (see also Section 3.3). They try to question and reveal the often hidden power relations that underlie the implementation of hegemonic linguistic policies and practices (Heller 2003; Duchene and Piller 2011; Piller and Takahashi 2013). Still others are merely prescriptive. For example, the PIMLICO-Project (European Commission 2011: 4) mentioned above, illustrates best practices for imitation (e.g., language training and cultural briefing schemes, the use of professional interpreters and translators or native-speaker recruitment).

This sub-section has provided an overview of specialist literature on practices. The next two (Sections 2.3 and 2.4) will report on the results of 30 case studies carried out by Austrian researchers under the guidance of Eva Lavric (see Lavric 2008a-c, 2009a-c, 2012a-b; Back 2004; Back and Lavric 2009; Mrazova 2005 and 2009; Lechner 2010). These will also be compared to other, related studies (e.g., Vandermeeren 1998 and 2005; Charles 2002; Poncini 2003; Leeb 2007; Truchot 2009; Truchot and Huck 2009; Millar, Cifuentes, and Jensen 2012, Ludi 2012; Bellak 2014). As regards the methods employed, these studies were mainly based on qualitative interviews with a number of people in each company, complemented sometimes by questionnaires (in order to reach a wider range of subjects) or linguistic landscaping (cf. Waldthaler 2014; Stingeder 2015). In certain cases, researchers had resort to participant observation or the language-diary method developed by Burkli (1999). This consists of noting down, in the course of a whole working day (or more), all interactions in which a certain employee is involved, and the languages and variants s/he uses for different interlocutors, themes and situations. We will proceed from external to internal communication (the communication of a parent company with its subsidiaries being counted as internal), and finish with a sub-section on policies vs. “bricolage”.

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