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In today’s globalized world, understanding how language choice influences communication within multicultural workplaces is vital for collaboration. A recent study conducted at an EU terminology and communication unit in Luxembourg unveils aspects of this complex phenomenon.

The study explored the meaning of language choice between English and French. Researchers analyzed over 30 hours of interviews, during which trainees and permanent staff reflected on their language use. An in-depth analysis of stances identified two distinct positions in communication representing uneven discursive positioning among communication partners - language cringe and language push. The unequal positions couldn’t simply be explained by personal or organizational status. Instead, the inequality stemmed from underlying language ideologies of purism and native-speakerism.

Moreover, the analysis highlighted the impact of cultural differences between the monolingual and multilingual interpretative frameworks that constructed the meaning of language choice. Within both frameworks, participants performed and interpreted language cringe and language push to avoid "loss of face." However, the reasons for such loss differed. While the international perspective emphasized the instrumental use of language to foster mutual relationships, the monolingual French perspective focused on refined and elaborate expressions. The emphasis on linguistic performance over pragmatic interpersonal needs can be understood as part of the culturally French "logic of honor," which has been previously theorized as a socio-historically built-up reluctance to adjust to the communication partner. However, this approach was not always welcome in the international context of an institution that promotes day-to-day multilingualism.

The findings of this qualitative study of discourse underscore the need for open discussions about language choice. Misunderstandings about language adjustment led to tensions in the workplace. Therefore, management in the observed unit has meanwhile integrated language choice discussions into its onboarding agenda for new trainees. However, the implications of this study extend beyond the context of European institutions. As businesses increasingly operate in multicultural environments, understanding the nuances of language choice is essential for effective communication and team cohesion. By promoting open dialogue about language choice and its effects, organizations can create a more inclusive and culturally sensitive work environment, prevent stereotyping of languages and speakers and consequently increase the perception of well-being at work.

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The above introduced study in its academic pre-print version can be found here.

An early version of the text was discussed and refined at the 15th GEM&L conference in 2022, where it was awarded the Nigel Holden Prize.

You can also check further reports from this research, discussing Anglophone migrants cringing for their lacking language skills in a multilingual country and why even language professionals ditch their focus on mistakes when using a "foreign language".

Further reading

  • d’Iribarne P (2009) National cultures and organisations in search of a theory: an interpretative approach. International Journal of Cross-Cultural Management 9(3): 309-321.
  • Garrido MR (2022) The evolution of language ideological debates about English and French in a multilingual humanitarian organisation. Language Policy 21: 47-73.
  • Kassis-Henderson J (2005) Language Diversity in International Management Teams. International Studies of Management and Organization 35: 66-82.
  • Lovrits V. & de Bres, J. (2021). Prestigious language, pigeonholed speakers: Stances towards the ‘native English speaker’ in a multilingual European institution. Journal of Sociolinguistics.
  • Lovrits V (2022) Making meaning of multilingualism at work: from competence to conviviality. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development.
  • Lovrits V, Langinier H, and Ehrhart S (2024) French and language ideologies in a multilingual European Union institution: Re-constructing the meaning of language choice at work. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management 24(1):149-166.
  • Nurmi N and Koroma J (2020) The emotional benefits and performance costs of building a psychologically safe language climate in MNCs. Journal of World Business 55: 1-15.
  • Park JS-Y (2011) Framing, stance, and affect in Korean metalinguistic discourse. Pragmatics 21(2): 265-282.
  • Phillipson R (2010) The EU and languages: diversity in what unity? In Anne Lise Kjaer and Silvia Adamo (Eds.): Linguistic diversity and European democracy. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 57-74.
  • Piller I (2015) Monolingual ways of seeing multilingualism. Journal of Multicultural Discourses 11(1): 1-9.