A recent study on multilingual communication initiated reflection among a team of trainees and permanent staff in an EU institution and brought insights into the effects of talking about talk at work. Juniors and seniors did not have the same opinion on what is an appropriate language use at work. This gradually changed as the team reflected and shared their perspectives. The seniors voiced their expectations and the trainees' attention shifted from language competence to mutual understanding and conviviality at work. The study shows that people coming from monolingual backgrounds may need explicit guidance on language use in multilingual settings.

Research summary written by Veronika Lovrits, BM Luxembourg

In recent decades, managers and professionals have been asked to rethink linguistic boundaries in the pursuit of efficiency and social justice. So-called "named" languages, such as English or French, have become problematic concepts. Teachers have also been asked to allow communication without traditional linguistic and grammatical rules into the classroom.

But if one works in a field where the idea of separate and standardised languages is literally paid for, how could ignoring formal linguistic boundaries work? Don't we need a system of standardised languages to guide us? And what might the idea of ignoring standardisation bring to the professional life?

To find this out, researchers studied language use decisions in a terminology and communication unit of an EU institution. From September 2020 until May 2021, two cohorts of trainees and their seniors took part in research. These language professionals were in a regular contact with about 110 translators from 24 translation units (24 official languages of the EU). In such a work position, one might be most concerned by the pureness and standardisation of languages.

This is also what the trainees initially thought. In the beginning, they understood personal multilingualism as a way of showing off professional language competence. They were preoccupied with “not making mistakes”, so they only dared to use English or their first language at work. However, after having had the opportunity to reflect and talk about motivation and effects of the varied language use in the workplace, they realised they unnecessarily limited themselves this way. As a result, they gradually passed from using only English to using all languages they were able to use effectively.

So they aligned with the stance of the seniors. These were using at least five languages regularly without fixating on linguistic perfection in communication. Instead, mutual understanding and personal rapport with others was guiding the seniors' language choice. When comparing the stances during the study, the seniors realised that the juniors tend to come with fears and fixations that are ineffective in the multilingual environment. So the seniors decided to give the next cohorts of trainees more explicit support and encourage a regular talk about talk in the team.

When the trainees ceased to fixate on keeping their “professional face” and mistakes, they were more satisfied with their traineeship experience. Also the workplace became a more multilingual space. That said, the output of the unit still undergoes a meticulous process of checks and proofreading. It is also as professional as ever, thanks to the common care and cooperation of various professionals. However, the everyday work encounters have been liberated from the fixation on formal rules for the sake of conviviality and lifelong (language) learning.

If you are curious about details of this study, check the full research report published in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development Making meaning of multilingualism at work: from competence to conviviality.

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Further reading

  • Barakos, Elisabeth and Charlotte Selleck. 2019. Elite multilingualism: discourses, practices, and debates. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 40. 361–374.
  • Blommaert, Jan and Ad Backus. 2013. Superdiverse Repertoires and the Individual. In: Ingrid de Saint-Georges and Jean-Jacques Weber (eds.), Multilingualism and Multimodality. The Future of Education Research, 11-32. SensePublishers: Rotterdam. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6209-266-2_2.
  • Canagarajah, A. Suresh and Adrian J. Wurr. 2011. Multilingual Communication and Language Acquisition: New Research Directions. The Reading Matrix 11(1). 1-15.
  • Kirsch, Claudine and Joana Duarte. 2020. Introduction: Multilingual approaches for teaching and learning. In: Claudine Kirsch and Joana Duarte (eds.) Multilingual Approaches for Teaching and Learning: From Acknowledging to Capitalising on Multilingualism in European Mainstream Education, 17–27. Routledge.
  • Lovrits, Veronika. 2022. Making meaning of multilingualism at work: from competence to conviviality. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2022.2047987