Profiling uses and users of Business English

Business English (BE) occurs in two main communicative settings: 1) External communication used by (business) organisations to relate to public/external stakeholders: 2) intra- and inter-company communication (Gerritsen and Nickerson 2009:180). While the former is governed by top-down, ordained corporate language policy, the latter is subject to considerable variation, including as it does English as a working language or language for communication used relatively informally among employees. Alternatively, as proposed by Babcock and Du-Babcock (2001) for expatriate-local personnel communication patterns, international business communication occurs in different communication zones which interactants form on the basis of their language proficiency. Communicators may use a linking language to connect with interactants from different zones. Alternatively, in the case of more limited communicative abilities, so-called “link-pin” channels of communication emerge, in which case mediators or “translators” help bridge the proficiency gap (Babcock and Du- Babcock 2001: 383).

As a corporate language, uses of Business English may be industry-related and/ or depend on such factors as the company’s status in an international group of companies, that is, whether the language is used in the parent company or subsidiary. Du-Babcock (2014: 70) draws a distinction between English used in international companies and in transnational or global firms. In the former, native languages - local or regional - tend to be used as working languages for most business purposes while English would be restricted to international business activities only. By contrast, in global organisations English is, in this author’s view, the only working language independent of the linguistic context in which the organisation operates. Finally, in so-called transnational companies, English functions as a linking language, that is, businesspeople use their first language to communicate in their subsidiaries or divisions whereas English is used to report to the parent, that is, when linking to the globally operating heads.

Focusing on international business encounters, Gerritsen and Nickerson (2009: 180) list four communicative settings, each involving a speaker A with a first language A and speaker B with a first language B: 1) Both speakers use language A; 2) Both speakers use language B; 3) Person A uses his or her first language, Person B uses his or her first language; 4) Person A and Person B opt for a third language C, a lingua franca. The four situations require different communicative strategies and highly proficient users. While scenarios 1) and 2) rely on accommodation, 3) and 4) presuppose users proficient in several languages.

These communicative settings emphasise the need to integrate both native and non-native speakers of English into today’s conceptualisation of Business English. This approach breaks with research traditions which demarcate (International) Business English from uses of English as a lingua franca or English as an international language (EIL). The first of these “refers to situations where all communicators are non-native speakers of English, and EIL to communication in which both native and non-native speakers of English participate” (Rogerson-Revell and Louhiala- Salminen 2010: 376). In contrast, Business English as a lingua franca (BELF) is a neutral and shared resource, being “neutral in the sense that none of the speakers can claim it as her/his mother tongue; it is shared in the sense that it is used for conducting business within the global business discourse community, whose members are BELF users and communicators in their own right - not ‘non-native speakers’ or ‘learners’” (Louhiala-Salminen, Charles, and Kankaanranta 2005: 403-404).

The presence in the linguistic marketplace of various languages and/or varying levels of proficiency in one language does not exactly level the playing field. In a questionnaire-based study on the uses of Business English as a lingua franca amongst business professionals, Kankaanranta and Louhiala-Salminen (2010) identified several characteristics of such encounters. They found that, in the European context, these interactions chiefly involve non-native speakers rather than native speakers of English. As to the users’ attitudes towards English, about half the informants felt disadvantaged vis-a-vis native speakers in meetings or negotiations, assuming that only native speakers are able to fully, and purposefully, exploit the pragmatic potential of English. Others felt more comfortable, using the native speakers as “instructors” whose language may be emulated. Interestingly, as reported by Kankaanranta and Louhiala-Salminen (2010), the question of language proficiency in itself was not important; it became relevant only in concert with business (communication) competence and know-how. This can be explained by a focus on superordinate communicative goals, such as “getting the job done”, rapport management and the professional roles assumed by the business partners.

What does all this mean for users of Business English? It would seem that the prototypical user of Business English tends to be a non-native speaker of English. She or he uses the language in community-based interactions in international business contexts that involve users of different first languages and cultural backgrounds who agree on a shared repertoire. In other words, Business English users will be languag- ing, using adaptive communicative strategies, such as accommodation, in order to achieve a common communicative and professional goal. While users are likely to adopt various attitudes to the use of English in these settings, English is, by and large, seen chiefly from a content-based perspective, that is, as a “neutral”, shared set of linguistic resources.

 
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