Policy and planning in organisations: why language matters

This post was contributed by Dr Lisa J. McEntee-Atalianis from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communciation. Dr McEntee-Atalianis is organising a conference on Language Policy and Planning in Multilingual Organisations: Exploring Language Regimes on Monday 3 July 2017.

un_language-policyIncreasing debate about the impact of international contact on language use has given rise to broadly binary accounts of its effects:  as a nurturing arena for multilingual diversity and creativity in communication practices; or as a stymieing force, leading to the dominance of linguae francae, particularly English. Themes of power, politics and economics, inter alia, play into analyses of some multilingual contexts, with calls for changes to language policy often made to combat inequity, injustice and/or to assess the ‘cost’ (financial or otherwise) of maintaining more than one language.

Traditionally the field of language policy and planning (LPP) has focused on national concerns, however in recent years research has also focussed on community, family and organisational scenarios. It is recognised that we must move beyond a nationalist paradigm to accommodate the networks, structures and flows apparent in post-national societies and inter/transnational contexts. As we move into ever-increasing global connectedness many of us are now interwoven in professional and personal networks which transcend the nation (virtually and physically), leading to complex patterns of interaction and the emergence of fluid linguistic repertoires. We are also subject to multiple layers of governance and influenced by the burgeoning economic and political might of transnational corporations and supranational organisations, which far exceed the influence of our local communities or states. How issues are debated and decisions made within these organisations and whether or not we are given a voice is of importance to us all. Language matters!

While there is still comparatively limited research on LPP in organisations, studies on supranational organisations (e.g. the EU and UN) and public administration of multilingual states (e.g. Canada, Switzerland, Belgium) have shown that they experience great difficulty in implementing and sustaining multilingual provision and this can lead to marked inefficiencies and inequities for those functioning within them and those affected by their work. This is an issue addressed in my own research on the work of the United Nations.

Current language regimes in some multilingual organisations no longer necessarily reflect the practices or needs of individuals who work within them or the people they are trying to reach. Moreover, there is demand for scientific modelling of established and newly emerging multilingual organisations to assess their effectiveness. For further developments in the field of LPP and for academics to be able to inform policy makers, concerted interdisciplinary collaboration is needed – not least the combined efforts of linguists, economists and political scientists. In a step towards this goal, I am convening a symposium with Michelle Gazzola (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) bringing together some of the leading scholars in the field of LPP who work across a range of disciplines (education; economics; linguistics; politics) and research sites.

We will consider the unique challenges faced by multilingual organisations working within different sectors (e.g. business; diplomacy; economics) and identify and evaluate the socio-economic and political effects of alternative ways of managing multilingual communication adopted by public administrations and organisations (e.g. political representativeness, democratic participation, social exclusion). By looking at different methods of investigating language regimes and the challenges faced by researchers who work in these areas we hope to reshape current priorities for LPP research and increase its impact on policy makers working in multilingual organisations.

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I-D: The Boundaries of Identity: The multiple identities of multilingualism

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt, from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Tonight’s lecture was the second in the series of lectures being organised by the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy around the theme of identity.

Dr Derek Hook was the first speaker and he started by saying that “Identity is one of the most over-used and under-defined terms in social theory”.  He then introduced the audience to the concept of identification. This he described as the psychological process of assimilating an aspect or attribute of the other, and in the process being transformed wholly or partially.

Identification is not the same as identity. Identification is the outcome of the failure of identity, as defined as “the sameness of a person or thing at all times”. A person is always partially a reflection or copy of something else, having assimilated aspects of others.

Dr Hook said that as social subjects we are always entangled with others and never fully differentiable from those around us. Sometimes we are over inclusive when setting the boundaries of who we identify with, and at other times we tend to be over exclusive.

Freud identified three forms of identification. The first was the primitive form (or father-as-ideal). In this form the object wants to become the father. It is a loving form of identification, yet underscored by ambivalence as there is an implication that the child wants to replace the father, which introduces an element of competitiveness.

The second form of identification discussed by Freud is regressive identification. This form relates to a lost or failed love. The object wants something or someone, but can’t have them, so instead becomes like them, by assimilating their traits.

The third form is hysterical identification. In this case the process is driven by a desire to occupy a place, not to become another person. There is no emotional attachment to the person whose trait is being assimilated, and in fact there could be active antipathy towards that person. It is only the place occupied by them which is being sought.

In the second part of the lecture, Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele gave several clear examples of how people who are multilingual can create different identities for themselves in different languages.

The first example was of an American student called Alice. In the USA she distanced herself from classmates, and felt that she could not change her identity as defined by her class and social status. When she went to France, she used the opportunity to recreate herself, regularly organising parties in her dorm room, and creating an identity as an intellectual who was able to hold her own in philosophical discussions with her French friends, using “big long French words”.

A Finnish multilingual was able to pinpoint very specific personality traits which manifested themselves when he spoke different languages. Although in this case the multilingual was able to identify different traits coming to the fore when he spoke different languages, sometimes this is a more subtle difference. An interesting experiment with Spanish-English bilinguals showed that when asked to rank themselves on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) the same participants gave different results, depending on which language they were asked in.

Another fascinating study with Greek-English bilinguals, told participants a story about Andy, or Andreas, depending on the language that the story was told in. Andy/Andreas had been neglecting his girlfriend and elderly mother because of pressures at work. The participants in the study were much more likely to be tolerant of Andy’s behaviour than of Andreas’s, showing that not only were they language switching, they were also switching between cultural frameworks.

Professor Dewaele ended by saying that multilingualism has been shown to have a positive effect on open-mindedness, cultural empathy and social initiative, and that he wishes that more governments would recognise the benefits that multilingualism can bring.

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