Power relations and language contact

The topic of unequal power distribution resulting from different language competences and membership of linguistically diverse groups of speakers was taken up in distinct disciplines at various times. Thus the conflictual relationship between two or more languages within a given territory deriving from their speakers’ differing status and power resources (diglossic/polyglossic situations) has long been the subject of investigation by sociolinguists (Ferguson 1959; Fishman 1967; Kremnitz 1994: 32, 2004; Hudson 2002). In management studies, by contrast, research interest in the power relations between two or more languages in an organisational context has appeared only during the last decade (Vaara et al. 2005; Tietze and Dick 2013).

However, even in sociolinguistics, the concept of diglossia/polyglossia has as yet been developed and discussed merely at the supra-state, state and regional levels. Here, we will show how it can be transferred to the business context, where many different languages are often present (corporate languages, learned and used foreign languages, heritage languages and first languages). In such situations, we can easily identify (socio)linguistic patterns and functions similar to those pertaining to the higher levels of language policy. Thus in organisations too, linguistic contact situations raise the question of languages’ equally shared or limited functionality for their respective speakers. In most cases, we can expect contact situations in which two or more languages divide linguistic and social functions asymmetrically. For example, in companies where a corporate language is introduced, official internal communication (email, appraisal interviews, meetings, etc.) will switch immediately to it. As a result, local or heritage languages will be used, if at all, only in (informal) day-to-day communication. It is true that this has its importance, for example in terms of identification. However, in official situations there will now be a power gap between native speakers of the new corporate language (often English) and others, which becomes evident in differing career prospects and other areas. In extreme cases, diglossic/polyglossic situations in organisations can lead to language conflict, overt or covert, and induce instability. Heritage languages are especially threatened by such developments; as they cannot be used in everyday working life, they lose functionality for their speakers, whose motivation to use them at all may well be reduced in the long run.

To sum up, and similarly to the situation at state level, diglossic/polyglossic functionalities of languages in organisations may indicate existing imbalances and a power gap between different groups of speakers or employees. The special focus on potentially unequal relationships of different languages in social interactions in the linguistically highly diverse business world (e.g., the hegemonic position of large vehicular languages over other languages) is nowadays addressed not only by sociolinguists, but also by management scholars (Vaara et al. 2005; Tietze and Dick 2013). What these imbalances often imply is a considerable conflict potential, of which decision makers/managers are not always aware. In this regard, we propose to transfer the concept of diglossia/polyglossia to the world of business and to the organisational context. In fact, we see a strong parallel between dominated languages and groups of speakers within a (multinational/international) company and equivalent situations in any other speech community.

In addition, linguists have recently established that, in a globalised world, jobs - especially those in the services sector - can be regarded as scenes where linguistic practices and organisational language policy choices are prone to be maintained, and hence to reproduce certain forms of social inequality. Unequal access to resources in organisations, constraints - more apparent than real - and structures legitimised by powerful actors, may be the result of underlying economic, market-driven, control-based, national or ideological interests. We might therefore ask: Who defines exactly which linguistic competencies are needed in a company and why? Scholars from different disciplines have diagnosed, in selected companies, an increasing hierarchisation of languages and speaker groups, which may have a tangible impact on employees’ psychological condition. In addition, some of these researchers have detected a connection between the degree of linguistic standardisation and the strength of identity in organisations (Heller 2003; Heller and Boutet 2006; Bothorel-Witz and Choremi 2009; Duchene and Piller 2011; Duchene, Moyer and Roberts 2013; Piller and Takahashi 2013).

The underlying assumption in these studies is, obviously, that decisions related to organisational language policy (e.g., linguistic standardisation or non-standardisation of corporate communication) affect not only the everyday work of employees, but also their social identity constructions. The link between these latter and policy can be found in the concept of linguistic identity (Kremnitz 1995; Boyer 2008), which implies insights stemming from individual psychology (identity is basically seen as a person’s self-concept) as well as from social psychology (Krappmann 2004; Petzold 2012). For businesses the performance of identities is crucial because processes of identification are closely linked to employee retention and organisational commitment. Additionally, they also have an impact on organisational performance through labour turnover, absenteeism and individual performance (Flynn 2005; Schmidt 2013).

It would seem, then, that managers and employees are largely dependent for their social identity construction on the power relations that characterize their working life, which in turn may be strongly linked to language issues. Such effects may arise not only from language policies in a strict sense, but also from measures intended to act primarily on other areas but which have a strong impact on the relation between language and power.

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