Language in International Business: A Review and Agenda for Future Research.

Author:Tenzer, Helene
 
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1 Introduction

Exactly 30 years ago, a review of nearly 500 English-language management texts (Holden 1987) demonstrated that only very few authors considered language, and those who did quickly brushed over the topic without considering its complexity. Much has changed since that time. Today's international business scholars treat language as an issue at the heart of their subject area (Brannen et al. 2014; Mughan 2015), as language determines organizational communication, constitutes the foundation of knowledge creation (Piekkari et al. 2005) and is considered essential for the construction of organizational realities (Piekkari and Tietze 2011). Highlighting the theoretical and practical relevance of language in international business, Piekkari et al. (2014, p. 1) stated: "To say that language permeates every facet of international business would meet with little argument, especially from those involved in global activities in any form".

As noted by Brannen et al. (2014), scholars approach language issues in business from many different angles. Among the diverse conceptualizations of language they use, three facets feature most prominently: national languages spoken in multinational corporations (MNCs), officially mandated corporate languages, and English as the language of global business. Many scholars focus on the national languages of corporate headquarters and globally dispersed subsidiaries, which are spoken alongside each other in MNCs (Angouri 2014), mingle in employees' speech (Janssens and Steyaert 2014), and thus form "linguascapes" (Steyaert et al. 2011), which are constantly subject to negotiation. Others deal with the notion of a common corporate language, mostly defined as an "administrative managerial tool" (Latukha et al. 2016) that acts as a facilitator or barrier to internal and external communication (Piekkari et al. 2005). Beyond the frequent, but simplistic understanding of top management mandating that a specific national tongue (mostly English) must always be chosen (Berthoud et al. 2015), scholars have started to recognize the complexities of common corporate languages, which "often reflect the industry context and the national language environment in the country of origin" (Brannen et al. 2014, p. 497; Brannen and Doz 2012). The role of English constitutes the third facet of language frequently studied in business. Depending on their disciplinary socialization, international business scholars varyingly conceptualize English as a hegemonic force (Tietze and Dick 2013), which recreates postcolonial power structures (Boussebaa et al. 2014) or as a more neutral communicative tool in the form of business English as a lingua franca (1) (BELF) (Kankaanranta and Planken 2010). Yet other scholars investigate the interplay between national and corporate languages and English (Kuznetsov and Kuznetsova 2014). Language-related research in economics developed largely separate from those bodies of literature. This economic stream analyzes semantic structures of national languages such as future-time reference (Chen 2013) or gender marking (Hicks et al. 2015) and investigates their impact of economic behavior at the country level. Cross-national economic research mostly relies on linguistic distance, i.e. a measure of how difficult speakers of one language find it to learn the other (Hutchinson 2005), or as a predictor of trade patterns and various other outcomes (Sauter 2012; Melitz and Toubal 2014).

But has the proliferation of publications studying international business activities under a language lens made scholars more sophisticated in their conceptualization of language? We review the fast-growing literature on language diversity in international business in order to consolidate and evaluate its achievements to date, identify remaining desiderata, and suggest a research agenda for the years to come. Based on our reading of 264 journal articles on language issues in international business contexts, we show that different streams within the field have developed separately. Whilst economic approaches strive to make the features of specific languages measurable, business studies are divided in their conceptualizations of languages as static and discrete entities versus hybrid, fluid, and situational codes. Whereas some business studies perpetuate the notion of language as an easily accessible instrument or management tool, an increasing number of publications on multilingual business phenomena draws on translation studies, socio- and psycholinguistics to capture language as a multifaceted, complex, and dynamic concept. Revealing patterns in theory, methodology, data, and content within the extant literature, we conclude that international business as a subject area has substantially broadened and deepened its coverage of language issues, but would still benefit from drawing more extensively on language-focused disciplines such as linguistics, in particular applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics, as well as translation and communication studies. Only by integrating the concepts and methods from different academic disciplines can the complexity of linguistic influences on international business be adequately understood. Building on this finding, our review aims to provide an inspiring and actionable agenda for future research.

We will start by describing our systematic review methodology and show how we identified, selected, and reviewed relevant publications. Subsequently, we will develop an organizing framework through which we summarize the current status of research in language in international business by research setting, theories, methodologies, and key findings at individual, group, firm, and country levels. On this basis, the second half of our review develops a future research agenda.

2 Methodology: Systematic Literature Review

2.1 Data Collection and Analysis

We followed the systematic literature review methodology (Tranfield et al. 2003) using Business Source Premier, JSTOR, and ProQuest to identify language-related research in international business. Following Cantwell and Brannen's (2011) positioning of the Journal of International Business Studies, we conceive of international business as a subject area covering contributions from a variety of business disciplines such as management, human resources, or marketing and other disciplines such as economics, psychology, and (in the specific case of our topic) linguistics. (2) These multidisciplinary contributions are united by their focus on the MNC with its cross-border activities, strategies, business processes, organizational forms, and other ramifications as a common subject matter. Regarding our specific topic, language-related publications written by management scholars, linguists, communication scholars, or members of other disciplines are equally classified as international business contributions as long as they study language in a business context.

To capture relevant publications in this subject area, we searched for the terms language, linguist*, bilingual, and multilingual, each time combined with the term "international business" (i.e. "language" AND "international business", "linguist*" AND "international business", etc.). "International" is the broadest term describing cross-border studies, whereas "business" is broader than other possible search terms such as enterprise, corporation, or management. Our results were particularly comprehensive, as the search engines not only crawled for the full term in the article texts, but also yielded publications using "international" and "business" separately (EBSCO 2017). To probe for comprehensiveness, we ran several test searches combining alternative terms such as "multinational", "transnational", and "cross-border" with "enterprise", "corporation", and "management". Our core searches covered the results of these probe queries with extremely few exceptions.

These searches led us to a variety of publications in a broad set of journals. Our review starts in 1987 with the earliest publications we identified and continues until December 31, 2016, thus spanning three decades. Our sample comprises work that is already in the public domain, i.e. has been published or appeared online first on a journal website, but excludes forthcoming articles. We omitted monographs and book chapters, as these publications are not listed in the databases we searched and could therefore not be systematically gathered. We also omitted book or thesis reviews, as well as introductions to special issues as they do not include original research. We only included publications which had one of our search terms in the abstract, keywords, or hypotheses. Furthermore, we discarded those which only considered language as one out of many independent or moderator variables, unless this variable was discussed separately in the results and discussion section and unless the related results yielded theoretical implications. To further delineate the scope of our review, we focused on publications dealing with diversity in national or corporate languages, with English as a global language or with the dynamic interplay between these aspects. We omitted studies of rhetorical (see e.g., Fiol 2002), metaphorical (see e.g., Cornelissen 2012), or symbolic (see e.g., Astley and Zammuto 1992) language use, which do not focus on the effects of language diversity, but rather on the representations of language. We also excluded communication research dealing with discourse, narratives and sensemaking rather than multiple and different languages per se (see e.g., Cooren et al. 2011).

Fig. 1 Language research in international business: article types by year. Note: 2016 figures include articles that appeared online first in 2016, to be published in print in 2017 Language Research in International Business: Article Types by Year Number of Publications Qualitative Quantitative Qualitative and...

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