When the orphan becomes the focus of attention

Introducing the management of multilingualism to management education

By Claudine Gaibrois
University of St. Gallen (Switzerland)

No business student will probably be able to escape cross-cultural management courses or Human Relations Management classes during his/her years at university. But what about managing language diversity? The topic seems to be an orphan of management teaching, in spite of its obvious relevance for companies in a globalized world in which workforce mobility has become the rule not only on the executive floor.

High time to put language diversity center stage in management education. This is what I recently strived at by teaching a one-semester bachelor-level course on managing language diversity at the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland) and several short bachelor-level and master-level modules at the Ecole de Management Strasbourg (France). Not surprisingly, while the topic’s relevance might be obvious for management scholars investigating language issues, this is less the case for many management students. After all, managing a multilingual workforce has rarely been part of the standard curricula so far. So, one major challenge certainly is to gain students’ interest and create motivation to engage with a topic which is unfamiliar to them, at least at first sight.

These are the teaching approaches which provided good results and which I will put on my ‘do it again’ list after my first experiences:

• Build on students’ own experiences:
All of them have travelled to some place in which they did not understand the language. Many of them have been or are exchange students or interns in big companies. So they have a lot of stories on challenges and opportunities of language diversity to tell! These stories are an excellent starting point for digging deeper into the topic, because students have experienced its relevance themselves. You only have to encourage them to think about it.
• Show examples from the business world:
Look for cases that document the positive or negative impacts of language diversity. It’s much more persuasive to put language center stage when you can show multilingual employees can help companies grow in specific markets or an IT company lost a job because of lacking language skills than if you just claim that ‘the topic is important’.
• Invite a practitioner as a guest speaker:
Theory and insights from research are well and good. But what shows the relevance of the topic more convincingly than hearing a HRM manager from a multinational corporation describe challenges and opportunities of language diversity or praise the virtues of ‘broken English’ for relaxed communication?
• Have students investigate the impacts of language diversity ‘on the spot’:
Ask them to conduct case studies in companies, NGOs, hospitals or other public institutions. Have them interview employees in different positions and analyze them based on a self-chosen research question. Students’ viewpoints on managing language diversity will be much more grounded in ‘real worklife’. Also, they feel proud to act as researchers and find it exciting to conduct interviews. What could be a better motivation?
• Introduce them to a broad variety of literature:
Management scholars are not the only ones who have written good articles on multilingualism at the workplace. Linguists also conduct a lot of research on the topic. Do not forget to introduce some of it to the students. Apart from empirical studies, something every management scholar interested in the topic can benefit from is linguists’ nuanced conceptualization of what ‘language’ and ‘multilingualism’ actually are.
• Create a discussion-based learning environment:
Stimulate plenary discussions and controversies on the implications of language diversity and possible strategies to manage it. Students learn a lot more from engaging with other viewpoints, and especially, from challenging each other, than from the most elaborate power point presentation you might prepare.
• Show them possible tools, not ready to use solutions:
Introduce the variety of ways multilingualism is managed in the business world to them. Show them possible tools for the creation of a constructive communication culture in a multilingual context. But refrain from presenting anything as perfect recipe appropriate for each and every situation. Always discuss the implications of tools for management and employees.
• Encourage the nuanced development of strategies:
After the sensitization part, have them reflect on possible strategies to ‘manage’ language diversity. After all, they are business students who see themselves as future managers. However, encourage differentiated and context-specific thinking which prevents students from falling into the trap of assuming that adopting one corporate language is the golden solution in all situations. Have them develop strategies in groups or write individual write reflection papers at the end of the seminar. Ask them to discuss the pros and cons of their strategies.

Claudine Gaibrois holds a PhD from the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland). In her thesis, she investigated power relations in multilingual organizations. She has taught the one-semester bachelor-level course ‚Managing Languages in International Companies‘ at the University of St. Gallen in fall 2015 as well as several 3-hour bachelor-level and master-level modules on ‘Managing Linguistic Diversity’ at the Ecole de Management Strasbourg (France) in fall 2015 and winter 2016. She also offers practioner-oriented trainings on communication in multilingual workplaces.

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