Insights from other selected disciplines

From applied linguistics to other disciplines: Towards interdisciplinary awareness

Up to now, we have covered the topic of language policies and practices in business and the economy from an applied (socio)linguistics perspective. Yet, as remarked in Section 1, related issues are also the object of study by various other disciplines, namely management and organisation studies, political science and economics. And, despite the interdisciplinary approach of applied linguistics, there is still a great lack of de facto cooperation, mutual awareness and reception between it and these other disciplines. All could gain much from looking outside the box and bundling their efforts. That is why we place special emphasis on this last part of our chapter, which aims at building bridges between disciplinary approaches that remain barely related.

Management and organisation studies

It is true that sociological work on rhetorical issues, the social construction of meanings and discourses (in organisations) dates back to at least the 1960s (Foucault 1966, 1971; Berger and Luckmann 1967; Bourdieu 1977, 1982; for a comprehensive historical overview, cf. Deetz 2001). However, it was only around the turn of the millennium that the social and economic sciences experienced their “linguistic turn” (Alvesson and Karreman 2000; Musson and Tietze 2004; Musson, Cohen, and Tietze 2007; Grosjean 2012 (tournant linguistique)). This development affected, in particular, critical management studies, and in the last fifteen to twenty years (international) management studies generally have shown heightened interest in (natural) languages and language-related topics. What seems to be new about this interest is a focus on the potentially unequal relationships of different languages in social interactions (e.g., the hegemonic position of vehicular languages over smaller regional or minority languages: see also Section 3.3) and on language diversity and multilingualism in organisations.

Additionally, it is quite recent that scholars have started to publish language- sensitive research in highly-respected management journals, such as the Academy of Management Review (Brannen 2004; Vaara and Tienari 2008), the International Journal of Human Resource Management (Marschan-Piekkari, Welch, and Welch 1999; Piekkari et al. 2005; Harzing and Pudelko 2014), the Journal of World Business (Janssens, Lambert, and Steyaert 2004), the European Journal of International Management (Tietze 2010), Organization Science (Neeley 2013) or the Journal of International Business Studies (Luo and Shenkar 2006). In 2014, this last journal published a special issue on “The multifaceted role of language in international business”, with the purpose of establishing “a new domain in [International Business] scholarship originating from an explicit focus on language” (Brannen, Piekkari, and Tietze 2014: 495; see also the contributions of Hinds, Neeley, and Cramton 2014 and Janssens and Steyaert 2014). In the management literature produced since the late 1990s, therefore, we can locate more and more articles on employees’ linguistic practices, corporate language policies and organisational multilingualism.

Existing empirical studies on language practices and policies in organisations are primarily concerned with multinational corporations (Marschan, Welch, and Welch 1997; Barner-Rasmussen and Bjorkman 2005; Peltokorpi and Vaara 2012; Harzing and Pudelko 2013, 2014; Piekkari, Welch and Welch 2014) or with the linguistic challenges posed by organisational restructurings, such as mergers and acquisitions involving global companies (Piekkari et al. 2005; Vaara et al. 2005). Frequently studied are the establishment of a common corporate language and the special training and qualification needs of expatriates (Puck, Kittler and Wright 2008; Ishii 2012). Only rarely do empirical studies stray away from the field of global companies, which implies that in management studies there is still little consciousness of, and knowledge about the language practices and policies of small and medium enterprises (but see: Williams and Chaston 2004; Collin et al. 2011; Pohjanen-Bernardi and Talja 2011). Some authors emphasise the necessity of aligning language policy decisions with the human-resource management function and/or the company’s overall strategy (Marschan-Piekkari, Welch, and Welch 1999; Feely and Harzing 2003; Piekkari et al. 2005). These studies again focus on multinational companies, even though small and medium-sized enterprises also engage in HR management activities, such as selecting, training, evaluating and compensating (multilingual) staff.

Some conceptually interesting works apply a specific theoretical lens to corporate language policy issues. The new institutionalism in organisational analysis, which originated in sociology, offers the concept of “institutional work” to describe “purposive action of individuals and organizations aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions” (Lawrence and Suddaby 2006: 215). Examples of such work are politically-motivated activities such as lobbying, and the imitation of best practices to create new institutions. Institutions in this context can be defined as habitualised and therefore quite stable expectations of reciprocal action, that is, socially-accepted practices and structures (Berger and Luckmann 1967: 72), as are, for instance, multilingual practices in organisations. Originally, the concept of institutional work was introduced to describe the political activity of social or regional language movements (e.g., Schneiberg and Lounsbury 2008; Lesk 2014) and only recently was it transferred to linguistic issues in the business sector and used to explain the concept and role of “language nodes” (Marschan-Piekkari, Welch, and Welch 1999; Barner-Rasmussen and Aarnio 2011: 3-4). Language nodes could be expatriates, or middle managers in a company headquarters or subsidiary, who connects and mediates between different groups of employees through their institutional “translation” and bridging work. In this perspective, they are cultural and political actors in the international communication process, responsible for spreading particular values, meanings and discourses within the global company (Janssens, Lambert and Steyaert 2004; Tietze 2010; Chidlow, Plakoyiannaki, and Welch 2014). In short, these articles, which focus on translation and cultural bridging processes in international business, integrate insights from translation studies as well as from sociology and organisational studies (institutional theory).

Whereas language-sensitive studies conducted by international and HR management scholars have become increasingly common in recent years, there seems to be surprisingly little awareness of the language issue in studies on diversity management in organisations. There, language is rarely mentioned, and most studies do not define it as a separate dimension of diversity, like gender, age, ethnicity or race (Hanappi-Egger 2006; Takagi 2011; Claes, Hanappi-Egger and Primecz 2012). Occasionally we can find in the management literature studies on language diversity carried out by researchers with a linguistic background (Janssens, Lambert and Steyaert 2004; Henderson 2005; Aichhorn 2015) or contributions to journals on business communication from affiliates of management / business administration departments (Lauring and Selmer 2012), but these remain exceptions. Consequently, integrating linguistic diversity into a comprehensive diversity management concept could be a challenging future project in research and practice.

Applied linguists working on language policies in organisations can profit from concepts and methods applied in, and findings derived from management and organisation studies in multiple ways.

  • 1. Implicit language policies, which - according to our understanding - can be translated into human-resource management activities in the organisational context, may be studied systematically by including other human-resource functions apart from recruiting and training (see also Section 3.4). Hence political actors in companies (e.g., human-resource managers) can be recommended to implement a consistent organisational language policy which includes other human-resource functions (e.g., career management) and which also allows for bottom-up considerations (e.g., by covering individual linguistic needs of employees discovered in institutionalised career review processes).
  • 2. The fruitful theoretical debate about the different focuses of the concepts “language policy” and “language management” can contribute to revealing and explaining contradictions between implicit and explicit language policies. In this context, we can reflect on the different interests of (groups of) speakers in organisations and on underlying power relations (see also Section 3.3). In particular, the relationship between language and power entered the academic discourse of organisational researchers decades ago (Clegg 1987) and was taken up by critical management studies.
  • 3. Interference between different levels of language policies, the contradictions between them and the compromising strategies of actors could be investigated not only from a sociolinguistic perspective (see Section 3.2), but also within an institutional theoretical framework (new institutionalism in organisational analysis) in order to capture the “bigger picture”.
  • 4. To complement the methodological repertoire of linguistics, researchers of language policies in businesses could also draw on methods from social sciences (and vice versa).
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