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Reconceptualising English in the age of (corporate) globalisation

The waves of globalisation

It has become commonplace to assert that the global spread of English has dramatically changed the socio-political landscape in many parts of the world, with English predominating in important societal domains, particularly those bearing supra- regional and transnational relevance (Gnutzmann 2011: 517). Although, historically, various languages have served as koines or lingua francas, the current role of English worldwide is without precedent, both in terms of its geographical spread and the array of its users from diverse linguacultural backgrounds (Dewey 2007: 333).

Developments beyond the linguistic provide an appropriate backdrop to this spread and functional range of English. Since the start of the modern period, the history of the English language has been closely interwoven with globalisation, providing we conceive of the latter more broadly as “the spatio-temporal processes of change which underpin a transformation in the organisation of human affairs by linking together and expanding human activities across regions and continents” (Poppi and Cheng 2014a: ix). It has become common practice to distinguish between three main “waves of globalisation” (Poppi and Cheng 2014b), with the first spanning the period from 1492 to 1800, the second covering that from 1800 to 2000 and the current wave being an ongoing process (but see Held, McGrew, and Goldblatt 1999 for a different threefold classification).

It was during the second wave of globalisation, fuelled by the onset of the Industrial Revolution, that the English language was to become increasingly associated with facilitating communications in relation to the exchange of goods. To this day, economic globalisation has been the major driver of the internationalisation of English, implying that “[i]n this context, international trade as an agency of this dynamic serves as an ‘umbilical cord of culture diffusion’” (Brinkman and Brinkman 2002: 732). Certainly, the notion of “culture diffusion” is suggestive of a hyperglobalist perspective on globalisation, ascribing homogenising forces to the spread of “Western capitalist market-type business practices” (Alexander 1999b: 1470) and conceiving of multi-national corporations as powerful governance institutions. Yet what is at stake here seems to be the dissemination of an often misguided belief in “modern economic growth, as a science-based (useful knowledge) technology, which may be material or social” (Brinkman and Brinkman 2002: 742).

Several influential factors, such as the impact of e-technologies, the increasing volume of international trade or the global integration of markets (Du-Babcock 2014: 68), have helped propel the transformation processes giving rise to enhanced communication practices and the need for a shared language in international business transactions. Another important vehicle for the international use of English is its adoption as a working language and language of publication by globally operating enterprises and by international organisations, such as aid agencies, the World Bank or the OECD. Crucially, this process is ongoing. It has already encompassed, for example, the BRIC political grouping made up of Brazil, Russia, India and China, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose only official working language is English (Kirkpatrick and McLellan 2012: 662).

What is more, it is during the ongoing third wave of globalisation that the English-using individual has become a multiplying factor in the language’s global spread. In the process, English has taken centre stage as the shared language of legal and private persons engaged in international business. As Alexander (1999b: 1470) notes, “[a] central feature of the overall internationalisation process sees business people becoming ‘facilitators of exchange’ of goods, services, capital and more obviously today ‘information’”. It is also the individual who has begun to act as a global player in cooperating through a multi-modal network of communication. The current wave has produced ever more closely-knit global communities, a “flattened world” (Friedman 2005), in which information exchange and knowledge transfer have become key activities helping to create new social and business practices and to reshape existing ones. Consequently, “English is an intrinsic part of communication in multinational settings and a fact of life for many business people” (Nickerson 2005: 367-368).

This begs the question as to how English as such a shared language may be conceptualised. According to Kankaanranta, Louhiala-Salminen, and Karhunen (2015: 138), it may be taken to mean “corporate language”, in the sense of a particular language to be used in company communication as the result of a top-down, strategic decision. Alternatively, it may also be considered a shared pool of linguistic resources - in the sense of Business English as a lingua franca - used by company employees from diverse linguacultural backgrounds, as appropriate, for both situa- tive context and communicative purpose. This understanding involves community- based interaction and communicative events that “commodify” or even “virtualise” the language. Conceptualisations of English today therefore involve controversial issues such as plurality, fluidity and locality, all of which are encapsulated in the term languaging, which “refers to the process of making meaning and shaping knowledge and experience through language. [. . .] Languaging about language is one of the ways we learn language” (Swain 2006: 98). Inevitably, it has become ever more difficult to model “that thing called English” (Seidlhofer 2011).

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