Multilingualism in International Business

Multilingualism in International Business

Libi Shen (University of Phoenix, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6992-3.ch008
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Language situations vary in different nations. In some countries, a variety of languages are spoken; in others, a single language is used. People who have the linguistic competence to speak several languages are multilingual. What role does multilingualism play in multinational corporations? Is multilingualism a problem or a solution for international business? Does English as a lingua franca play a role in international business? How business leaders react to multilingualism or Englishization? Opinions are divided. Multilingualism has been the focus of interest in recent decades due to globalization, tourism, technology advancement, international trade, and so forth. Language barriers and linguistic diversity surfaced which may impact corporate communications in international business. Specific language policies might be needed for corporate communications. The aims of this chapter are to explore the roles of multilingualism and Englishization in international business, and to seek approaches for better corporate communications. Associated issues and problems as well as solutions and recommendations will be explored and discussed.
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Psycholinguistics is the study of language processing and mental representations in perception, comprehension, acquisition, storage, and production of language. Over the decades, many psycholinguists have devoted efforts to understand how various aspects of linguistic processing work together and how language is done in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Thus, language processing was illustrated by a psycholinguistics model to include phonological processing, lexical access, syntactic parsing, representation pruning, and conscious interpretation (O’Grady, Dobrovolsky, & Aronoff, 1997). Since psycholinguistics involves the study of the relationships between linguistic behavior and language processing, it can be applied to many fields of language study. In examining languages in social contexts, multilingualism surfaced as one of the interesting fields for exploration.

Multilingualism is “the use of three or more languages by an individual or by a group of speakers such as the inhabitants of a particular region or a nation” (Richards, Platt, & Platt, 1998, p. 299). For example, Leo Apotheker (former German CEO at SAP and Hewlett Packard) can speak German, Dutch, French, English and Hebrew; Paul Bulcke (CEO of Nestle) can speak Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German; and Tidjane Thiam (Chief Executive of Credit Suisse) can speak French, German and English (Shoshan, 2015). According to Forbes news, though inconclusive, people who can speak more than one language have more job opportunities, can do better work, can work more efficiently, and are better multitaskers (Money Builder, 2012). Three benefits of being multilingual (i.e., more business opportunities, better customer service, and understanding different cultures leading to international business) were proposed for international business careers by New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT, 2017).

The importance of multilingualism has been exemplified by many researchers. For instance, Gunnarsson (2013) described that,

In today’s economy, it is not only managers and elite staff who need to be linguistically flexible. Factory floor workers come in contact with different languages during the workday. They have to be prepared to interact with group leaders and fellow workers with a different linguistic background than they have themselves. (p.162)

The staff who are multilingual has a direct impact on its success with winning international work (The Guardian, 2014). Levy (2015) identified three reasons people need to have a multilingual international marketing strategy: (a) over 50% of Google search results are sent to people outside of the U.S.; (b) customers respond more favorably to content in their own native languages; (c) it avoids misunderstanding of the messages. “It cannot be denied that a multilingual approach could increase a company’s chances of findings new markets” and “a multilingual company has a competitive advantage when selling its products and services” (Pierini, 2016, p.50). On the contrary, “the UK economy is already losing around £50bn a year in lost contracts because of lack of language skills in the workplace, says Baroness Coussins” (The Guardian, 2014, para. 1), and the languages most in demand in Wolfestone are German, French, Arabic, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese (The Guardian, 2014). In a word, multilingualism, globalization, and international business are all related.

Multilingualism and transnationalism are closely tied to globalization, which has an impact on policies related to citizenship, education, language assessment, applied linguistics, and society (Duff, 2015). Languages, such as English, Chinese, French, Spanish, and hundreds of others are transnational, and are used as lingua franca, national majority or minority languages, and colonial heritage languages (Duff, 2015). In fact, global businesses are finding new ways to penetrate local markets in the indigenous language instead of using English an international lingua franca (Pierini, 2016). It is apparent that people all over the world have a better understanding of the complexity of the roles that language and culture play in the international business nowadays. Stein-Smith (2016) believed that,

Key Terms in this Chapter

Lingua Franca: A language used for communication between different groups of people who speak different languages.

Multilingualism: The use of several languages (e.g., three or more) by an individual or a group of speakers.

Corporate Language: Language used in a company or corporation for doing business.

Psycholinguistics: The study of language processing and mental representations in perception, production, comprehension, storage, and acquisition.

Englishization: Making use of English language as lingua franca and converting materials in local language to English in an international corporation or organization.

Diglossia: Two languages or language varieties exist in a community or society and are used for different purposes or functions.

Language Barrier: Communication obstacles between people due to language diversity or language proficiency.

Code-Switching: A change of languages or dialects from one to another during the conversation.

Language Policy: Through language planning, rules are made by a company or a government concerning official language choice, ways of use of a language, spelling reforms, the addition of new words, language issues, etc. in a company or a country.

Language Diversity: Language varieties including different language families, grammar, and vocabularies.

Corporate Communication: The dissemination or exchange of information or news in a company by different departments such as finance, marketing, etc.

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