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PhD Series No. 23.2014
International businesses like multinational corporations (MNCs) operate across national, cultural and linguistic borders both internally and externally, and thus are under pressure to make language choices. Despite the increasing tendency towards ‘English only’, little is known about whether language can be managed. In addressing this research gap, the present thesis explores language choice in four MNCs. A deeper understanding of language choice in its social context enables us to learn more about the manageability of language in such international business contexts. The theoretical framework draws on primarily sociolinguistic theories, combined with concepts from applied linguistics, language policy and planning/management, linguistic anthropology, translation studies, social psychology, and international business and management. The analyses in this qualitative case study are based on different empirical data, though with a focus on interview data, collected from two Danish and two Austrian headquarters and selected subsidiaries. The findings suggest that language choice is a social, contextually-bound and multilingual phenomenon. More specifically, the MNCs operate as multilingual speech communities where headquarters and subsidiaries choose their own language and English as a lingua franca only if necessary. The notions of corporate language and language policy are partly negatively connotated and point towards non-management. Furthermore, participants’ language choices are informed by (1) their language proficiency (first language and possible foreign languages), (2) their roles, role relationships within the employment domain, and politeness strategies, all shaped by relative status and power, (3) their attitudes to language and motivations, and (4) social forces external to the MNC community. At a more abstract level, social context is defined by (1) social-linguistic, (2) social-relational, (3) social-psychological and (4) social-regulatory contextual dimensions that inform or impose the choices of HQ languages, local/customer languages and English (as a lingua franca). The language choices can involve code-switching/-mixing, passive multilingualism, translation and interpretation, language learning and acquisition, human resource management (selective recruitment and staff relocation). Most of the choices are in fact made at both the individual and corporate levels, which are hard to separate from one another. The corporate level is fragmented into individual executives who make language choices in their own right which are far from harmonized. An additional level is external forces (e.g. authorities, laws) that impose the use of multiple languages on the MNCs. Finally, language choices vary across the MNCs’ organizational units, internal and external communications and communicative situations. It can be concluded that language choice is a social, complex, context-dependent and multilingual phenomenon which makes it hard to control or regulate. In conclusion, my research indicates that language management in international business contexts undertaken by MNCs can hardly be centralized or monolingual. Under the influence of external forces, it is even beyond their control. This suggests that language management needs to be localized, multilingual and sensitive to social context. Ultimately, one could question whether language needs to be managed at all or should be better left to individual choice. This knowledge can contribute to both research and business practice.
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