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Multilingualism in the Workplace

  • Britt-Louise Gunnarsson
Abstract

This survey article presents studies on multilingualism in the workplace carried out in different regions. One aim is to give a cross-cultural picture of workplace studies on different languages, and another is to discuss both positive and problem-based accounts of multilingualism at work. The conditions for workplace discourse have been influenced by a series of changes taking place in recent decades. Technological advances have led to new types of networks and workplaces, making linguistic issues salient, at the same time as many low-paid workers are found in traditional jobs, for which the face-to face interaction is central. A model is presented, the aim of which is to grasp the complex and dynamic interplay between workplace discourse and its various contextual frames. Overviews of studies on multilingualism at work are discussed with a focus on workplaces in the inner, outer, and expanding English circles; in transnational companies; and in multilingual regions and English lingua franca workplaces in Europe. Workplaces with workforce diversity are also dealt with. In the discussion section, the scope is enlarged and workplace discourse is related to various contextual frameworks. Finally, some key topics for future studies are sketched.

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Hill, P., & van Zyl, S. (2002). English and multilingualism in the South African engineering workplace. World Englishes, 21, 2335.

In their investigation of the engineering profession in South Africa, Hill and van Zyl found a complex picture of language practices. A high standard of English was found to be crucial for young black engineers in the companies that had a policy of English only at management and interdepartmental level and in written communication. Site observations and interviews, however, revealed that Afrikaans and indigenous African language were often used in the workplace to “get the work done” (p. 23). Most young black engineers were multilingual, which was found to be a positive force for cooperation with workers who did not know English. In the South African engineering companies, multilingualism was thus found to be a significant professional resource for young engineers.

Kelly-Holmes, H., & Mautner, G. (Eds.). (2010). Language and the market. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

This volume is of relevance for workplace multilingualism as it includes several chapters that give a critical perspective on market processes related to recruitment of staff and workplace language. Three chapters (earlier discussed in this article) explore how languages, accents, and varieties are manipulated and controlled by actors in the employment market in Asia: Cowie (pp. 33–43) reported on a study of the call center industry in India, Lorente (pp. 44–55) analyzed maid agency advertisements in Singapore, and Herat and McLoughlin (pp. 56–67) reported on language requirements in Sri Lankan advertisements. Of relevance for workplace multilingualism is also Gunnarsson's (pp. 171–184) study on how Swedish multinationals represent linguistic diversity on their corporate websites, and Hilgendorf's (pp. 68–80) report of the growth of English as a corporate language in Germany.

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This article reports on a study of language policy and language use in banks in the multilingual context of Luxembourg. Two international banks with staff from different European countries and with varied mother tongues were studied. The discrepancy between explicit language management policies and reported language use practices were revealed, showing the importance of both top-down and bottom-up pressures on language practices.

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This article presents a longitudinal study of a Chinese woman with a college background, who newly had arrived in the United States. Li's ethnographic research focused on language socialization in the workplace. Narratives, interviews with interlocutors, and recordings of interaction were used to explore the double socialization: into a new work environment and into a new language and culture. Through exposure and participation in social interaction, and with the assistance of experts or more competent peers, this Chinese woman came to internalize work-related language and cultural norms and develop a communicative competence in English that made her function at work.

Lønsmann, D. (2011). English as corporate language. Language choice and language ideologies in an international company in Denmark (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark.

This case study can be said to illustrate the complexity of multilingualism in a European working environment. In her Ph.D. thesis, Lønsmann explored a Danish pharmaceutical company that had recently gone international and adopted English as its corporate language. With regard to language competence, the company was a diverse environment, and both the choice of English and the choice of Danish meant that some employees became excluded. Exploring what values the employees attached to different languages, Lønsmann found that beliefs about how language should function in a Danish company contributed to the construction of boundaries between groups such as Danes and foreigners and the attribution of value to these groups. A shared belief among the staff was that Danish is the natural language in Denmark, and also foreigners were classified in relation to their knowledge of Danish.

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Roberts and her colleagues at King's College London have explored problems facing immigrants at work in United Kingdom in a number of studies. This chapter includes a critical discussion of employment interviews. According to the author, the competency-based selection procedure, which is standard practice in the English-speaking world, constructs a so-called linguistic penalty for those groups it is designed to help. Roberts further used examples from two studies, based on video recorded interviews and associated feedback data, to illustrate how the candidates who are most successful manage to seamlessly institutional and personal discourses.

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