Why language matters

There is a gap between language-sensitive IB research and international management education. Philippe Lecomte calls for increased research and an interdisciplinary approach to the subject

 

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In the past three decades there has been a growing recognition of the importance of language in international business and organisation and management studies. At the same time, however, language-sensitive research is failing to permeate higher management education. Language issues faced by international companies and managers are not represented in the curricula of business schools. This article aims at examining why language-sensitive academic research in international business and organisational studies does not impact management education. Why do university business schools and French grandes écoles ignore the role of language in management, considering language as “a non-business issue”?

In their research, for example, Canada-based academics Professor Mary Yoko Brannen and Professor Terry Mughan found four clear inflection points among 32 selected articles where language was central:

1. an initial interest in language as an instrument

2. a preliminary inflection point indicating a turn toward linking language with culture

3. a second inflection point toward linking language with strategy

4. a more recent turn toward understanding language as a central construct in management theory

Due to the rapidly increasing globalisation of international business operations, translation processes are at the heart of collective understanding.

The conceptualisation of translation has become a core theoretical issue of language sensitive academic research. Translation and translators can no longer be considered as simple transmitters of written and oral texts. The translation process is much better defined as a creative activity, which shapes a new reality. Other academics demonstrate the link between the dominant North American culture in international management and the linguistic hegemony of the English language, claiming that language is not a neutral medium and that “business English” also acts as a conduit of power in order to impose the domination of one business ideology on the rest of the world and also to business education.

Language diversity has become a critical component in international organisations. Previously an under-explored component of cultural diversity, language diversity in organisations is now being studied by applied linguists and management scholars. Their research findings lay emphasis on the de facto multilingualism, characterised by the interplay of different languages, in today’s multicultural workplace.

With the intensification of connections between people of different cultures and backgrounds, a simplistic and limited view of language has given way to a fuller understanding of the complexity of communication and language-related issues in today’s international organisations. This has been facilitated by what has been termed the “linguistic turn” in the social sciences, which has given greater recognition to the importance of language in the social construction of reality and to language as a “performative act” because using words means taking action rather than merely using a symbolic system to describe an objective reality.

In recent years, the field of applied linguistics has also moved toward a “multilingual turn” in research on second-language acquisition, questioning the monolingual foundation of theoretical and applied linguistics and thus acknowledging the “performative” role of language. Therefore, language-sensitive research is multi-layered and can be explored from different theoretical angles. Language plays a crucial role at the individual, group and firm levels. This literature review has demonstrated the centrality of language in management and organisational research and highlights the emerging call for a holistic approach.

The ignorance of what language really means is the reason why foreign language learning/teaching is a problem in business education. Language is not only a tool of communication, it is culturally embodied and socially embedded. It does not mirror but shapes reality

As mentioned above, language in business schools’ educational programmes is still treated as a non-business issue, contrary to what happens in management research. Language teaching is seen as onerous, which is partly true because “language courses”, based on oral communication, can only be achieved in small groups. Language teaching is also considered as useless on the grounds that effective oral competence can only be reached through linguistic immersion and in actual contextualised verbal interactions with native speakers. In this case, why should business schools allocate an important part of their scarce financial resources to language teaching?

One reason – and probably the only reason – is that there is a strong demand from students for language teaching because it is the only place where students actually “speak” foreign languages, as opposed to listening to a course in finance in English. An alternative means of reducing the costs of multiple language teaching is to declare that the world speaks English, which is not true. Curiously, this position coexists with the grand narrative on social diversity elaborated by business schools’ decision makers.

There are more theoretical explanations for the dismissal of language in management educational programmes. The ignorance of what language really means is the reason why foreign language learning/teaching is a problem in business education. Language is not only a tool of communication, it is culturally embodied and socially embedded. It does not mirror but shapes reality; language equivalence between two different linguistic areas does not exist. Yet in business education the positivist vision of language as a neutral phenomenon still remains.

First, cross-cultural studies have dominated the field of management until recently and have contributed to the subordination of language issues under cultural differences. Second, language is still viewed as a mere tool of communication, with the basic assumption that it is sufficient to allow students in the classroom to learn to express in a foreign language what they think in their own mother tongue.

The tendency of language training policies in many business schools is to reduce language learning to the acquisition of a linguistic code and is disconnected from the overall learning objectives in management programmes. In addition, the teaching objectives of such language courses are often designed to match the criteria of standardised tests.

Another explanation lies in what can be called the “disciplinary silo” structure of educational programmes and faculty, in which each department is in competition with the others. Business school programme directors seem to be unable to rethink their curricula, which impedes any attempt to shape business education transversely. Based on this analysis, the question must be asked as to how we could best transpose these research findings into useable skills.

First, language training can no longer be dealt with in pseudo pedagogical structures (do language departments still exist in business schools apart from a few noticeable exceptions?), which are distinct from other management departments, where language teachers are hired on the criteria of being “native speakers”.

More and more language teachers in French business schools have understood that the way to escape the precarious conditions in which adjunct language teachers find themselves is to undertake language-related management research, although this is far from being widespread. Language teachers should be fully integrated into the faculty and encouraged to conduct language-sensitive management research.

Instead of linguists specialising in languages as semiotic systems, what is needed are specialists in actual diversity-driven language usage in international management settings. Put differently, foreign language training has to be conceptualised in relation to managerial activity at the micro-level, in relation to organisational behaviour at the meso-level, and in relation with strategic decision-making at the macro-level.

Second, the monolingual orientation of English lingua franca teaching makes no sense given the diversity and complexity of the globalised world. This is not only true from a linguistic perspective but it also questions the hegemony of the American management dogma in business education throughout the world. Diversity in the ways of approaching management issues, be it culturally or ethically, goes alongside linguistic diversity.

Third, translation should be at the core of the management education agenda. Translation means a reconceptualisation of meanings from a linguistic and cultural semiotic source system into a target semiotic system. It is a reconfiguration and the translator is a “reconfiguration agent”.

The simplistic view that prevails in business schools that language proficiency can only be achieved in contact with native speakers in a monolingual context is very misleading, as in reality, international managers are permanent “translators”.

Only a holistic approach to language in management education can help to break down disciplinary boundaries, to shape language and communication training in business schools differently, and to contribute to filling the gap between research and education.

Philippe Lecomte

Dr Philippe Lecomte is Associate Professor at Toulouse Business School, a member of the human resources department, former head of the school’s language department and President of GEM&L. He is a quali ed German teacher and holds a PhD in applied linguistics. His researchelds are the place of language in international business and the impact of Higher Education policies in French business schools.

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