Implicit and explicit language policy in organisations

In considering the various effects of language-related decisions in companies, an important distinction must be made between implicit and explicit language policies. This dichotomy has been referred to earlier (see Sections 1 and 3.1), but here it will be examined in greater detail. It becomes relevant when, in practice, we are confronted with contradictions between the two types of policies. In order to understand how they arise, we will first examine the two types themselves, starting with the positions that can be found in various branches of the specialised literature.

Of late, implicit and explicit policies have been extensively discussed in combination, both in sociolinguistics (Cichon 2012; Ehrhart 2012; Stegu 2012a) and in international management studies (Peltokorpi and Vaara 2012). It is striking that different scholars have partially divergent views on the distinction between them. This confusion may be due to our everyday understanding of implicitness as something not directly expressed, possibly unclear or even unconscious, such as common prior knowledge that is taken for granted. In contrast, explicitness usually refers to that which is openly and directly communicated, and can be perceived clearly by everyone irrespective of any prior knowledge.

In the realm of language policy, however, the distinction derives from the work of some linguists in the early 1990s and relates to the nature of the goals at which policy is directed. In the case of explicit language policy, these are openly communicated and are concerned with directly influencing the use of languages in various contexts. Explicit language policy can therefore be understood as the sum of measures openly and directly affecting groups of speakers and their use of languages (i.e., language practices). To sum up, the added element in the works concerned (Bochmann 1993:14; Kremnitz 1994: 80) is the emphasis on goal-orientation of activities undertaken in pursuing language policy. For example, at state or regional level political actors such as (regional) governments, could concede an official status to a previously unofficial and unrecognised language by adapting the legal framework (for instance, the country’s constitution) accordingly, and subsequently enacting detailed legislation to ensure the practical significance of the new status. In the business context, the official introduction of a corporate language is a measure of explicit language policy.

Goal-orientation is also a feature of implicit language policy, but here the underlying mechanism works indirectly rather than directly. In other words, goals are not made explicit. Instead, they are implicit in those of other policy areas (e.g., the economic development of a region, the education of children or adults) that are not necessarily or primarily concerned to influence language practices. Hence implicit language policy may well be the consequence of explicit political and/or organisational measures; its implicitness refers only to the language aspects involved. In practice, it can represent a powerful factor in encouraging the social use of a specific language, as we will see. Thus political actors - governments, non-governmental organisations, the media, employers, unions, economic, and cultural and educational specialists, as well as politicians with responsibilities in the fields of education, culture and the economy, etc. - could undertake measures to raise the social status of (a group of) speakers and their economic well-being. Activities which effectively empower speakers of certain languages in their social and professional life can be classified as operating implicitly on languages (Bochmann 1993: 14; Kremnitz 1994: 80; Cichon 2012:18).

The same is true of the organisational context, where it is possible to empower certain groups of employee-speakers by promoting the possessors of particular linguistic competences to key positions. The primary purpose of such a promotion, as of any other, is to manage the corporate career system properly, but - as a quasi-side effect - it will upgrade the social status of employees who speak certain languages, and so perhaps also influence certain language practices in the future. Of course, like the explicit variety, implicit language policy - depending on the particular goals pursued - can also be detrimental to certain groups of speakers. Examples arise when multilingual competences are regarded as irrelevant for top management positions, or when quasi-native competences in a newly introduced corporate language are required for promotion.

It is surprising that few linguists (Truchot and Huck 2009; Franceschini 2010: 26; Ehrhart 2012; Stegu 2012a-b) have studied the economic and social success of speakers of particular languages that is emphasised in our definition of implicit language policy, and which plays a very important role in organisations. This lack of research interest is even more astonishing from a management research perspective given that, in companies, implicit language policy in particular is often implemented using human-resource management tools. These might include leadership instruments such as employee appraisals, job interviews, job descriptions and profiles, and criteria used in deciding on compensation and promotion, all of which may, or may not, take linguistic competences and performances into account (see also Section 3.1). Moreover, according to management scholars, the sub-functions of HR management must be coherently aligned with each other, with overall HR strategy and with the strategy of the company as a whole. Such fine tuning calls for comprehensive investigation of the (inter)dependencies involved (Piekkari and Tietze 2012: 552-559).

Some recent linguistic investigations of the world of work deal with selected HR functions in the context of organisational language policies (European Commission 2006; Libert and Flament-Boistrancourt 2006; Lavric 2008a). Since the functions selected are mostly discussed in isolation from others and from the company’s overall strategy, these analyses make only a limited contribution to developing a comprehensive implicit language policy covering all HR functions systematically. Their main focus is on the use, in recruitment and training, of instruments and strategies which incorporate language-sensitive elements. Further aspects of a global, systematic (implicit) language policy, incorporating other HR development tools, career management measures and instruments of performance management and compensation, are largely ignored. This shows that linguistic approaches to language policies in business alone do not adequately address this quintessentially interdisciplinary topic (see also Section 3.1).

Even if the distinction between implicit and explicit language policies remains useful and widespread, today the two can also be regarded as forming a fluid and dynamic continuum. To illustrate the point, let us consider the language policies of universities which educate students of economics and management studies. Such institutions are generally able to decide, more or less autonomously, whether or not foreign languages play a significant role in their courses of studies. Until recently, this role was usually a crucial one, but in many cases the situation has now changed. Either the number of foreign languages classes has been reduced consciously and explicitly, or other subjects have come to be considered more important and the number of classes offered in them correspondingly increased. The result - sometimes unintended - of this combination of implicit and explicit language policy measures is that foreign languages are now often marginalised in economics and management programmes, or even outsourced by them.

The complexity and interdependency of measures of both types is also evident in other ways. Naturally, some political actors have already recognised the “side- effects” of an implicit language policy on language use. For instance, providing financial support for economic development in a bilingual territory or a multilingual/ multicultural city district will - hopefully, and at least to some extent - produce positive effects on the income of the local residents, including those who are bi- or multilingual. Then, bi- or multilingual employees would rather stay in the area due to attractive employers and job offers. But if the responsible authority were one day to decide to take economic development measures primarily and expressly in order to maintain and encourage the use of locally-practised languages, the language policy in use will have become more explicit because its main purpose has changed. In general, implicit language policy (regardless of its level) has always existed; it is the explicit variety that is of recent origin and that, even today, does not exist in every context.

At this point, we wish to underline once more that there may be inconsistencies between the elements of a given language policy, between choices about both explicit and implicit language policy measures, and between language practices. Discrepancies and contradictions, where they occur, are often due to underlying, unequal power relations. Thus the mission statement of a company, a university or a political union might state that the organisation is a multilingual one - an example of explicit language policy. However, its job advertisements might ask only for competence in a single foreign-language, in practice usually English (implicit language policy), thereby hindering the employment of new multilinguals. Consequently, multilingual practices at work are likely to disappear more or less slowly. In this example, we would detect contradictions between explicit and implicit language policy, whereas language practices are increasingly aligned with the implicit measures. Also apparent is the power differential between the human- resource manager who determines recruitment policy (effectively “English only”) and the (multilingual) colleagues of new recruits, especially if they have no say in final recruitment decisions.

Other scholars view the distinction between implicit and explicit policy rather differently. Ehrhart (2012: 22-24) sees the two as somewhat complementary and augments the concepts by adding a time dimension. She distinguishes between short-term, medium-term and long-term perspectives, each of them involving strategic and tactical layers. Moreover, between these two she introduces an eco-linguistic layer incorporating activities that are neither as spontaneous as tactics, nor as reflected and planned as strategies. Comparing Ehrhart’s conceptualisation of language policies and practices to our own, it is noteworthy that her short-term activities correspond largely to our concept of language practices. In our view, the introduction of a temporal dimension into the discussion is definitely helpful and offers further opportunities for analysis.

Truchot and Huck (2009), like Currivand and Truchot (2010), switch in their research between the notions of language policies (politique linguistique) and language management in companies (traitement/management des langues en entreprise). They tend to use the term language policy when referring to what, on our definition, is explicit policy. They also prefer the term language policies in the business context whenever the upper levels of language policy are concerned, or if language issues lead to planned interventions that are made explicit and so are easily observable by others. Such issues include language conflicts and language-related projects initiated by actors within the organisation (upper or middle management, staff representatives) in line with their own interests. In contrast, the same authors use the adjective “implicit” when language “strategies” occur spontaneously, or are introduced step by step without being identified as part of an organisational language policy. Similarly, they speak of implicitness when language choices reflect only common practice and are considered simply to be “normal behaviour” at work. This scenario corresponds closely to our definition of language practices and to the view of policies and practices as forming a continuum (as already mentioned above). In another study, Truchot (2009) deals with language policies in multinational companies, focusing on communication within them (e.g., communication between a parent company and its subsidiaries abroad or occasioned by mergers and acquisitions). He, too, distinguishes between implicit and explicit language policies. However, by adding a temporal dimension, he demarcates explicit policies which are ad hoc and punctual from those framed in the long term, and so takes up the idea of continuity.

Truchot’s (2009) concept of implicit language policies reminds us very much of what has been referred to here as bricolage. It is noteworthy that this kind of implicit language policy looks very similar to our own understanding of language practices as described and empirically captured by case studies in companies that employ participant observation (Lavric 2008b). In the case of explicit language policies, management intervenes in one direction or another, but the solutions adopted need not automatically become general rules for the future. An explicit and long-term language policy, according to Truchot (2009), is not necessarily better than bricolage, especially if it imposes English as a lingua franca. If anything, a well-reflected balance is needed between vehicular English, local languages (used in subsidiaries) and the language of the multinational company’s headquarters.

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