Towards a Richer Understanding of Language and Identity in the MNC: Constructing Cosmopolitan Identities Through "English".

VerfasserKarhunen, Paivi
PostenMultinational corporation

1 Introduction

Globalization has broadened the sphere of social interactions by making intercultural encounters easier and professional networks more diverse. Many such interactions are carried out in the global language--namely English -- which inevitably influences the way people see themselves and construct their identities as individuals and professionals. The question of identities is particularly relevant to international management (IM) nowadays when multinational corporations (MNCs) are faced with challenges related to multiculturalism and multilingualism in the workforce. Indeed, contemporary MNCs are expected to promote diversity, inclusion, and equality among their employees (and their identities) as integral to their corporate values (Kelly, 2021).

Identity has been a central theme in the language-sensitive stream of IM research, which focuses on the implications of language for management, particularly in MNC contexts (Karhunen et al., 2018; Tenzer et al., 2017). English is conceptualized as its native variant in most of this research, and as a marker of social identity and consequently a source of social categorization, creating language-based fault lines and negative implications on identities (e.g. Hinds et al., 2014; Neeley, 2013). It has only recently been acknowledged in IM research that English as a working language in the MNC may differ from its native variant, and that geographical and linguistic boundaries are not as fixed in contemporary MNCs as traditionally assumed in the theory (e.g. Ghoshal & Bartlett, 1990). However, little is known about how English in its role of enabling interactions among global business professionals might positively contribute to their identity construction.

We argue that two key notions provide a novel perspective on questions about the professional identities of MNC employees: cosmopolitanism and the sociolinguistic concept of English as a Business Lingua Franca (BELF). Cosmopolitanism, defined in the context of this study as belongingness to a global community (e.g. Vertovec & Cohen, 2002), serves to capture the processes through which the identities of global professionals emerge from global interactions, or the complex liaison of universality and particularity (e.g. Beck, 2004; Hannerz, 1990). As Watson (2018) argues, a cosmopolitan identity is understood as a "supranational" expression of selfhood, national identity being one - but not the dominant - marker (Smith, 2007; Turner, 2002), alongside others such as profession (e.g. Vertovec & Cohen, 2002). Although IM researchers have attached the attribute "cosmopolitan" to MNC managers and mobile professionals such as expatriates (Skovgaard-Smith & Poulfelt, 2018; Adams and van de Vijver, 2015) and transnational knowledge workers (Colic-Peisker, 2010), the role of language in cosmopolitan identity construction has not been explicitly addressed.

We seek to narrow this gap by viewing language and identity from a sociolinguistic perspective (e.g., Bucholtz & Hall, 2004; Omoniyi, 2006), namely as socially constructed in and through language in interactions among and relations between people situated in and aligned with various social settings and networks (Jenkins, 2014). We argue that a fruitful approach to identity construction in the MNC is to consider three interrelated dimensions, namely the individual, the interactional, and the contextual (Jenkins, 2014): the first of these represents professionals, the second their interpersonal communication, and the third the MNC context. Given the special position of English in the MNC, we argue that the most fruitful basis on which to study how cosmopolitan identities are constructed in the multilingual MNC in and through language is to conceptualize the "language" as English.

Scholars in the field of sociolinguistics have investigated the relationship between English and a cosmopolitan identity, revealing several processes at play when users of foreign languages negotiate cosmopolitan identities that are attached to real and imagined communities (De Costa, 2011; Ros i Sole, 2013; Davydova & Ilg, 2021). Involvement with communities is not only about engagement--it also requires imagination, which is a process of self-expansion by crossing boundaries and creating new images of the world (see Wenger, 1998, p. 176). Imagined communities refer to settings that individuals envision for themselves and aspire to join, such as the global community of English users. Given the sociolinguistic approach to English in general, and as a means of cosmopolitan identity construction in particular, the findings of this research provide insights for our study on the construction of a cosmopolitan identity in the MNC context. In this endeavor we apply the sociolinguistic concept of BELF, which refers to the hybrid and variable usage of English among speakers of different first languages that meet the demands of the specific business context (Komori-Glatz, 2018, p. 52). In that BELF is not a language (Raisanen & Kankaanranta, 2020) that is "owned" by native English speakers, it escapes language-based social categorization (Giles & Johnson, 1981; Harzing & Feely, 2008; Lauring, 2008). We argue that the BELF perspective in the MNC context contributes to the construction (and/or molding) of cosmopolitan identities that are not based exclusively on the national identity but also incorporate other identity markers such as profession (e.g. Kennedy, 2004; Mao & Shen, 2015; Skovgaard-Smith & Poulfelt, 2018; Vertovec & Cohen, 2002).

Our aim in this paper is to outline three propositions that capture the ways in which adopting the BELF perspective contributes to the construction of a cosmopolitan identity on three dimensions (individual, interactional and contextual) in multilingual and professional MNC settings. The first one concerns the individual's identification as a participant in BELF interactions, who draws on different linguistic resources, national origins, professions and experiences. The focus in the second proposition is on BELF interactions in which participants orient to both sharedness and differences in skills, knowledge and social relations. The third proposition elaborates how the construction of a cosmopolitan identity through BELF interactions projects the MNC as a social constellation with fluid geographical and linguistic boundaries.

Our propositions enable us to make several contributions to existing knowledge as we bridge work across disciplines, provide multi-level insights, and highlight directions for future inquiry (Gilson & Goldberg, 2015). First, we advance the theorizing on language and identity in the MNC, viewing them not as intrinsically tied to nationality, but as socially constructed in BELF interactions across linguistic and geographical boundaries. Second, we enrich IM scholarship on cosmopolitan identities in elaborating the role of language in identity construction. Third, we contribute to developing the notion of the MNC as a social constellation (Karhunen et al., 2018), which not only provides the context for the construction of a cosmopolitan identity in BELF interactions but is also socially constructed through them.

We proceed as follows. First, we review conceptualizations of identity and English in language-sensitive IM research. Next, we introduce cosmopolitanism as a concept and outline how cosmopolitan identities have been addressed in IM research. After that we describe the sociolinguistic approach to cosmopolitan identity construction, and BELF as our "proxy" for English in the MNC context. Then we describe the processes in which BELF constructs cosmopolitan identities and develop our propositions. Before concluding the paper, we discuss implications for future research on language and identity in MNCs.

2 Current Conceptualizations of Identity and English in Language-Sensitive IM Research

Identity has been identified as one of the central themes in recent reviews of language-sensitive IM research (Karhunen et al., 2018; Tenzer et al., 2017). The most frequently used sources of information include Social Identity Theory (SIT) and Tajfel's (1978) linear explanation of language as a marker of social identity formation and consequent to social categorization (Giles & Johnson, 1981; Harzing & Feely, 2008; Iwashita, 2022; cf. Lauring, 2008). In other words, individuals have linguistic identities, which are self-defined based on perceived membership of a linguistic group or as a speaker of a certain mother tongue (Bordia & Bordia, 2015; Iwashita, 2022; Kroon et al., 2015; Wocke et al., 2018). Hence, linguistic identity is intrinsically tied to the notion of nationality and national languages (cf. Vaara et al., 2017). It was only recently that Iwashita (2022) challenged this in his multi-case study of a Japanese MNC, suggesting that in the context of subsidiaries, national identity may be sustained independently of the languages used.

Many studies in IM research on language and identity focus on the negative implications of English as the dominant language in the MNC and in other international business interactions. These studies, reflecting the language-sensitive stream of IM research generally conceptualize English as its native variant (Karhunen et al., 2018), which enjoys a special position at the top of the language hierarchy in MNCs (Gaibrois & Nentwich, 2020). It is a position that arouses feelings of inequality and friction between those who master English and those who do not (e.g. Boussebaa & Brown, 2017; Gaibrois & Nentwich, 2020; Hinds et al., 2014; Neeley, 2013), and between native and non-native speakers (Sliwa & Johansson, 2014). More specifically, a lack of English language skills may cause anxiety among individuals (Neeley et al., 2012; Presbitero, 2020; Swift & Wallace, 2011), whereas proficiency and native-speaker status may generate language-induced power distortions such as an unearned increase in status within...

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