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Language policies in business

Definition of concepts and empirical fields

At the beginning of this section, we would like to return to the definition of “policies” (as opposed to “practices”) we gave in the introduction to this chapter. There we suggested 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; and the more it is non-reflected, ad hoc, individual, implicit, and bottom-up, the more it is practice”. We stated, however, that current language policy research tends not to respect these criteria strictly and to include in “policies” research many aspects traditionally seen as “practices”. That is why we provisionally defined “language policy” as “the plans, motivations and ideologies developed in the language sector, by all actors ranging from state to business, and from management to individual employees”. Now, in this sub-section, we will give a more detailed outline of possible definitions of “language policy”, before stating our own position.

To do this, we will examine the specialist literature with its various approaches. In applied linguistics and, more precisely, in sociolinguistics, we can locate language policy as a field of study for various scholars, each of whom see the concept differently. Depending on historical traditions (Jernudd and Nekvapil 2012) and scope, the focus of the various studies and the definitions of core concepts may vary significantly. The German linguistics tradition usually distinguishes between two notions, the first being a language policy focused on a single language and therefore mainly concerned with the elaboration and establishment of linguistic norms for spoken and written language, such as orthographic standards and issues of lexis (Sprachpolitik). The second notion (Sprachenpolitik) is a policy which regulates the relationship between different languages and groups of speakers within a given territory (e.g., a state or region) or other socio-cultural unit (e.g., a profession, a sub-culture, a company). It attempts to control the actual social use of languages, defines the linguistic rights of speakers and fixes the official status of individual languages, with or without direct reference to others (Ammon 2010: 636, 650). Here, in this paper, we are concerned primarily with Sprachenpolitik, in the sense of a policy designed to influence the use of different languages available in a company/organisation.

(Of course, a focus on Sprachpolitik in business is also possible and relevant: scholars would then study, for example, issues of “correct” discourse or politeness; see Neustupny and Nekvapil 2003:185.)

Next, following the French sociolinguist Boyer (2010), we can define language policy as the sum of choices, objectives and orientations adopted by states or other institutions in order to cope with linguistically-conflictive situations. Of course, if we look at organisations, we can observe linguistic contact situations which are not necessarily conflictive - at least on the face of it. However, in their work on multilingual workspaces, some sociolinguists too have recently detected imbalances in power and status among employees with different linguistic backgrounds and resources (Duchene, Moyer, and Roberts 2013). Some of these studies analyse strategically important functions of human-resource management (HRM) - recruitment and selection, performance appraisal, staff development (comprising training, succession planning and carrier management) and rewarding, or compensation (Fombrun, Tichy, and Devanna 1984: 41) - with regard to language policy. When employees’ linguistic competences are taken into account in studies, the focus is often placed only on recruiting instruments or language-training activities (thus partly reflecting business practice) to the neglect of other areas of HR management such as career management, where criteria for promotion could also include language proficiency. Moreover, companies rarely compensate linguistic competences specifically, although they regularly benefit from the linguistic performance of their staff. For example, multilingual employees whose job has no particular linguistic requirements may also be required to work for their company, more or less regularly, as interpreters, even if they are not professionally trained to do so (Spolsky 2009: 59; Meyer et al. 2010; Duchene 2011; Duchene and Heller 2012; Piller and Takahashi 2013). Companies which act in this way might be criticized for being exploitative; but others that collect no information about their staff’s language competences are simply short-sighted. Such wilful ignorance not only shows a lack of respect for employees’ diversity and skills, but is also imprudent because it may lead to business opportunities being missed.

Switching now to the Anglophone/Israeli-American tradition, one author impossible to omit is Spolsky, who has worked on language policy and management in various contexts. Spolsky (2004: 5, 2009, 2012: 5) uses language policy as an umbrella term for three inter-related components: language practices in a community; values and beliefs attached to linguistic varieties, which might be assembled to shape ideologies about languages; and language-management or language-planning activities. Although Spolsky himself largely separates these elements for analytic purposes, we favour a more synthetic view of language policies and practices that highlights the interrelatedness of his factors. In the context of language management at the workplace, Spolsky (2009: 53) states: “Management decisions are intended to modify practices and beliefs in the workplace, solving what appear to the participants to be communication problems.” It is noteworthy that only recently has he begun to use the currently fashionable concept of language management.[1]

In contrast, another school has worked extensively with a very different concept of language management. The group of linguists including, in particular, Jernudd, Neustupny and Nekvapil developed what they finally called “Language Management Theory” (LMT) out of “language planning theory” as early as the 1980s (Jernudd 1983). They broadened the scope of the term language management and constructed a theoretical model around it. We can find comprehensive depictions of LMT in this wider sense in Neustupny and Nekvapil (2003), Jernudd (2009) and Nekvapil (2009). It has come to constitute a well-developed and established theoretical framework that provides the basis for numerous empirical studies in the field (see, for example, the 2015 special issue of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language on “Language Management”). However, it should not be confused with “language management” as used by other authors unless these explicitly cite LMT as very specifically defined by Jernudd, Nekvapil and Neustupny, in which sense it relates to a very broad range of “acts of attention to ‘language problems’ ” (Neustupny and Nekvapil 2003: 185). These authors distinguish between simple (individual) and organised (institutional) acts of language management. They view “language management [as] aimed at language or communication, in other words, at language as a system as well as at language use”, and are interested not only in language choices, but also, for instance, in the degree of politeness required in a certain (organisational) culture and situation (Nekvapil and Sherman 2015: 6). These scholars thus refer within LMT to both Sprachpolitik and Sprachenpolitik as defined above.

Linking LMT to our understanding of “language policies and practices” (see below), it is equally obvious that LMT scholars also include language practices in their concept of management. Strikingly, though, only lately and infrequently have they addressed questions of linguistic hegemony, of power struggles between different groups of speakers and of their potentially conflicting interests (Neustupny and Nekvapil 2003: 186; Jernudd and Nekvapil 2012: 35; Nekvapil and Sherman 2015). Nekvapil and Sherman (2015) now integrate the distinction between top-down and bottom-up aspects of language policy into their framework. Of course, sociolinguistics has already highlighted the importance of bottom-up considerations in ensuring that language policy goals are achieved (Boyer 2008; Cichon 2012). But, typically, the studies concerned do not assume language policy to be neutral, perfectly rational and plannable by actors belonging to superior levels of political intervention (see Section 3.3. below). Rather, they posit that individual speakers (“employee-speakers” in organisations) may also initiate political activities and influence language practices in different social domains (bottom-up view).

Regardless of the well-elaborated theories in the field, and the now frequently used term language management, we have chosen here to use language policy in order to place a different focus on the topic. All in all, we have the impression that it covers more explicitly the important aspect of unequal power relations in linguistic contact situations, in companies and elsewhere. It also emphasises the interests of employee-speakers in organisations. Moreover, the use of management evokes certain undesirable connotations. Even when it is conceptualised as being strategic and when it allows for adaptation (in dealing with implementation problems), “management” always implies planning and top-down decisions. Besides, it puts the lens on the maximisation of utility, efficiency (through effective communication) and profitability as the main objectives. As we will see below, this approach entails the risk of unseen and detrimental (side-)effects.

In other words, we will foster an understanding of organisations which emphasises the unplanned and bottom-up elements in a chosen strategy (e.g., a strategy that encourages multilingual practices and linguistic diversity in companies).[2] We therefore advocate a more comprehensive definition of corporate language policy which allows inclusion of phenomena that may suddenly emerge in the process of implementing a chosen strategy, and that otherwise might be neglected. As opposed to language management, the notion of language policy encourages researchers to look beyond now outdated functionalist theories of management and to shed light on actors’ interests, on the political games played by speakers and groups of employees, and on the socio-cultural values and norms of speech communities. It therefore incorporates elements of organisational culture, micro-politics and social construction processes. Seen from our perspective, planned (and implemented) language management is usually part of an organisation’s explicit language policy, whereas micro-political activities and tactics can be regarded as part of its implicit policy (for the distinction, see Section 3.4). In many cases, implicit language policy has a much greater impact on employees’ (working) lives (e.g., on their social status and economic success) than explicit language policies and management.

Thus we advocate the use in future critical studies of the term language policy (in preference to language management) because it covers more thoroughly certain topics which are receiving increasing attention from interested scholars in linguistics, management studies, political science. These are: power imbalances in organisations; the interests of speakers with different linguistic backgrounds; the linguistic rights of employees; and the (socio)linguistic inclusion or exclusion of groups of speakers within an organisation.

In light of the above, we can now state our definition of language policy for the purposes of this chapter:[3] a corporate language policy regulates the use and non-use of languages and linguistic varieties which employees and managers have at their disposal, whether actually or potentially. From the individual’s perspective these include languages learnt at home, heritage languages and (foreign) languages learnt, for instance, at school or university, and other languages and linguistic varieties acquired in professional life (e.g., during a foreign assignment). Switching from the individual to the societal level, we can distinguish competences in languages and linguistic varieties (with different levels of status and prestige) deriving from nativeness, migration, education and professional training, and socialisation. Language policy in business therefore encompasses all measures aimed, explicitly or implicitly, at influencing the language practices of employees and managers, and at stabilising or changing the power relationships between different languages and groups of speakers within a company.

Armed with our definition, we now proceed, in Sections 3.2 to 3.4, to examine various aspects of language policy: policy levels, policies and power, and forms of implicit and explicit language policy. Our analysis is based on discussions in sociolinguistics beyond the organisational context. However, as we will show, these three core elements play important roles there too.

  • [1] Spolsky himself does not always fully respect his own quite clear distinction, especially when itcomes to illustrate language policy in different social groups or domains. He seems to prefer, forinstance, to use the notion of “language policy” when describing and analysing the work of governments, supra-national groupings or religious organisations, whereas “smaller” domains like thefamily or the workplace are more often referred to in terms of “language management”. Moreover,he views language management as representing the very explicit and often written part of languagepolicy (Spolsky 2004: 11); on another occasion he states that: “it is management only when we canidentify the manager” (2009: 6).
  • [2] Other linguists have already detected this inherent tendency of simplification and one-dimensionality of the original concept of management, but nevertheless decided to use it (gestion/traitementdes langues) in their research about languages in companies: “Les sciences de gestion d’entrepriseproposent une conception unitaire de la politique de communication, perdue comme planifiable,voire comme resultat d’une planification consciente faisant partie de la gestion de l’entreprise [...].Or, en realite, les mesures d’intervention des entreprises ne sont pas monolithiques. D’abord, elless’organisent souvent par paliers, les decisions etant prises par un ensemble heterogene d’acteursa des niveaux hierarchiques differents. De ce fait, la distinction entre « mesures de gestion » et« pratiques » peut s’estomper.” (Ludi et al. 2009: 39).
  • [3] For elements of this definition, see Truchot and Huck (2009), Peltokorpi and Vaara (2012), Piekkariand Tietze (2012), Stegu (2012a) and Lesk (2016).
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