Language choices in internal communication: Policies vs. “bricolage”

To start this sub-section on internal communication in businesses, we want to report on a company studied by Mrazova (2005, 2009) that experiences a conflict between the provision of language competences for external communication and the ease of internal communication. For each of the important language areas it deals with, the international investment bank concerned employs a team of two or three, at least one being a native speaker and the others having near-native competence. So the question arises: which language will be chosen for inter-team communication? As the company is situated in Paris and most employees speak very good French, in general French acts as the workplace lingua franca. However, the members of the Scandinavian team speak very poor French, so that communication with them must be in English. As a result, internal language patterns are complicated significantly by the company’s primary concern to provide linguistically adequate interlocutors for all of its clients.

This is an example of the local language acting as a workplace lingua franca, with only a small niche for the universal lingua franca English. But in general, when it comes to internal communication, the main question in international businesses is whether to go for English-only. According to Truchot (2009), multinational businesses have to make language choices between three types of languages: the language(s) of the country where their sites are located, the language of the country where the parent company is based, and English as a lingua franca. Certainly, we hold that other choices are possible, depending on the location; for example, a Brazilian multinational operating exclusively in South America might well choose

Spanish as its lingua franca. Elsewhere in the Western world, however, companies are increasingly introducing English, either as their company language or as a working language in certain predefined situations such as international or board meetings. In fact, an increasing number of (multinational) companies are introducing a one-language policy because they are convinced that this is the simplest communication solution in a world-wide organisation. Language plurality is seen as a drawback, not as an asset.

A number of authors, among them Truchot (2009) and Millar, Cifuentes, and Jensen (2012), view such policies with a critical eye, showing in their case studies that practices may be quite different from official policies. A number of our case studies, too, show that English-only does not work among employees with the same, non-English mother tongue. This truism is worthwhile asserting in view of the large number of multinational companies that have already introduced English as the official language for all internal communication at the expense of the original company language. This is even more likely to happen when mergers and acquisitions are involved, as English is a solution that in general privileges neither of the new partners. For example, in a merger between an Austrian and an Italian bank (Leeb 2007), English was chosen as the language of the newly constituted group, just as in the Nordea case presented by Charles (2002). Such a language policy appears simplistic and is hardly ever followed in practice by employees, who continue to weave their complex but meaningful language-choice patterns, a process referred to in Lavric (2012a) as bricolage (the French term for “do-it-yourself ”). In their spontaneous choice of language, speakers follow four main types of motivation (cf. the language-choice factors developed in Lavric 2000, 2001 and Back’s 2004 “motivational factors”)[1]:

  • - Natural choice: the use of a common native language or of the language for which the product of the competences of both speakers is greatest (cf. Myers- Scotton’s 1983 “unmarked language choice”);
  • - Language practising: the wish to practise a language one might not otherwise master so well;
  • - Prestige: the desire to impress through one’s language competences, and its opposite, the fear of losing face by making mistakes;
  • - Compliance: the selection of the code that speakers believe to be preferred by their interlocutor.

Only in e-mails, or and in written reports and papers, do employees tend to follow the official language policy, as they know that these kinds of texts may be disseminated more widely. Thus the medium may be an important factor in language choice, while in oral communication, it will be the level of formality associated with a situation that decides on the degree to which an official language policy is followed. In fact, the situations and circumstances in which employees are inclined or disinclined to follow such a policy (and the instruments the company might implement in order to impose it) would make a very interesting topic of investigation at the confluence between policies and practices research.

Be that as it may, and official language policies notwithstanding, in internal communication staff will generally tend to use the language of the country in which their workplace is situated (unless there are some members that do not speak this language at all, as in the Mrazova case in Section 2.3). In doing so, they follow the general rules of language choice in communities with different mother tongues and language skills: usually, a language will be chosen that allows all people present to participate in the conversation (cf. Myers-Scotton’s 1990: 98 “Virtuosity Maxim”: “Switch to whatever code is necessary in order to carry on the conversation / accommodate the participation of all speakers present.”). The smaller or more homogeneous the group, the easier this can be done. Actually, in business as in any other linguistic environments, people do indeed tend to choose the most “natural” or “efficient” or “default” language. For example, in the Austrian subsidiary of a French company, the language of everyday conversation will usually be German, the common native language of the majority of employees. But in communication with the French headquarters, those of the staff who speak French will use this language as much as possible, either because it is natural or to practice their French and show compliance (cf. also Ludi 2012: 147). This means that in dyadic communication, and in all situations other than official meetings[2] or suchlike, individual code choices will tend to follow their own rules. And, should all participants share the same mother tongue, that is, of course, the most natural choice which no language policy will ever prevent them from making.

It may even occur that employees fight to keep their “natural” working language in the face of a corporate language policy. For a series of cases where the staff resisted an English-only policy introduced by the management (in France, and in favour of French instead of English) see, for instance, Truchot and Huck (2009:15) who put forward arguments partly from a trade unionist’s perspective. They cite, for example, the Inter-Union Campaign for the right to work in French in France (Collectif intersyndical pour le droit de travailler en frangais en France) and emphasise the imbalance of forces between a parent company and its subsidiaries, as well as the inequalities that arise from an English-only policy. They also stress that the better employees know how to communicate, the better the company should operate. Millar, Cifuentes, and Jensen (2012) report a series of cases where an English-only corporate-language policy imposed by the head office had to be softened up or suspended for some of foreign affiliates owing to the poor English skills of staff there. These cases show how policies that fail to take account of the complexity of the language issue can - after a struggle - be overridden by practices, in the interests of good communication and good operation.

The alternative to defining an official language policy - and this is true for both internal and external communication - is to follow a strategy of linguistic bricolage, of laissez-faire and trust in staff’s improvisation skills (see Lavric 2012a). We have seen in Section 2.3 the case of a company (Stiebellehner 2009) whose head believes strongly that English-only is sufficient, while his staff use a wide range of languages depending on the interlocutor and the situation. This is an example of what could be called “employees’ potential for self-governance”. It confirms once more the subversive idea that many aspects of a business may function, not thanks to, but in spite of top-down policies of the management. Sometimes it seems sufficient to hire the right people and let them act as they please without hindering them. Such a strategy of laissez-faire - a bottom-up language policy - may function very well in small and medium sized companies. It might also be worth trying out in large multinationals, although it seems that these tend to need a well-planned language policy that focuses on present and future needs with a view to conquering new markets systematically through careful consideration of distribution channels and well-budgeted language investments.

In any case it might be advisable, even for large multinationals, not to frustrate bricolage practices developed by employees and managers who use tried and trusted means to resolve challenges in new situations with the means to hand. Millar, Cifuentes, and Jensen (2012: 91) speak of “creative tactics of muddling through and making do” that derive from competences and experiences accumulated over years, which management should value because they usually function rather well - indeed, sometimes better than the official policies. In fact, language-policy researchers have already included such bottom-up strategies in their field of investigation. Suffice it to refer to Ludi’s (2012: 160) observations on multilingual practices in business, or Bellak’s (2014) study of multinational companies in Austria and Denmark provocatively titled: “Can language be managed in international business?”

In the context of bricolage and code choice, we should also mention a very frequent communicative practice observable in interactions between multilingual individuals with (at least partially) corresponding language “repertoires” (on this concept see, e.g., Busch 2012). Here we seldom find exclusive use of a single language, but rather practices of “code switching” (Myers-Scotton 1990; Auer 1998b; Ammon, Mattheier, and Nelde 2004; Lavric 2009c; Stegu 2009). Code switching is defined as “the alternative use of two or more ‘codes’ within one conversational episode” (Auer 1998a: 1); a base language contributes the syntax and most elements, and some lexical or idiomatic elements of one or more other languages are “switched” in. Should the interlocutors switch repeatedly and regularly between two (or more) languages, the practice is referred to as “code mixing” (Muysken 2000); this happens above all where migrant communities are involved. Issues of situationally-conditioned “code choice” arise, for instance, when small talk takes place in language A (e.g., the language of the customer), while more specialised topics are discussed in language B (e.g., English as a lingua franca). This can happen both in internal and in external communication.

  • [1] Here is a similar list of motives dressed by Bellak (2014: iii): “[P]articipants’ language choices areinformed by (1) their language proficiency (first language and possible foreign languages), (2) theirroles, role relationships within the employment domain, and politeness strategies, all shaped byrelative status and power, (3) their attitudes to language and motivations, and (4) social forces externalto the MNC community.”
  • [2] But even in official meetings, as Poncini (2003) shows, beside official discourses, a whole range ofhighly diverse and highly regular language choices occur, bringing together those participants thatcome from the same linguistic area, plus those others that associate with them through friendly andcompetent usage of their common language.
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