Untwisting tongues: Language research in International Management

Reports on a panel session at the Academy of International Business in Copenhagen

Panelists Terry Mughan, Mary Yoko Brannen, Mary Vigier, Anne-Wil Harzing

At the 2019 annual meeting of the Academy of International Business, I participated in a panel session on the future of language research in international management. The session was chaired by Komal Kalra and her introductory slides are available for download here. After the opening, discussant Mike Szymanski asked the panel two questions.

  1. What are the current achievements of the field for IB academics and what are some key issues in which language raised itself as a critical issues in your work with practitioners?
  2. What are the most important substantive methodological considerations for doing language sensitive research in IB?

Below are the responses from the panelists, some are less extensive than others as they needed to be reconstructed from memory. Thanks to Shea Fan, my former PhD student, for taking the pictures. It wasn't easy given the distance and light levels, but she did a great job.

Round 1: Current achievements and issues

Mary Yoko: Language is now a construct in its own right

The burgeoning research on language is evidence that language is now considered a construct in its own right in IB. This means that there is growing sophistication around scholarship around language well beyond seeing language as an instrument – a national language specific skill or tool that either facilitates or complicates IB practice and research (see Brannen and Mughan, 2016). Recent scholarship includes looking at language policy and strategy in global organizations and looking beyond national language to include different registers of language such as corporate, functional, regional dialects, accents, language tone, and gender-marking.

There is also a growing reflexivesness around language related terms such as language as distinct from culture, fleshing out the differences between biculturalism and bilinguality, and language related skillsets such as brokering, boundary spanning and bridging that individuals with multicultural identities bring to the global organization. So, yes, Pandora’s box for language sensitive research has been opened which is fantastic AND there is plenty of room for growth before we get anywhere near maturity in the field of language in IB.

Brannen, M. Y., & Mughan, T. (Eds.). (2016). Language in international business: Developing a field. Springer.

Terry: Research is neglecting the needs of practising managers

There has been much empirical inquiry into the form and importance of language in international organizations. This has given rise to new vistas of language in the domains of personal and organizational capabilities, language policy, multilingual practices, functioning of global teams and human resource strategies and practices. This has been very exciting because all these phenomena have grown in both quantity and frequency in the global era. They have signaled the shift away from a total reliance on the expatriation model of multinational management to one marked much more by global teams, local responsiveness, migration, virtual communication and diversity. This new era is one marked by complexity and on-going transformation of structures and systems in which companies and individuals are required to show greater agility.

Maybe because of this rapid change and the need to discover and model new practices and concepts, language research has rather neglected the needs of the practicing manager. The latter is the subject of the research but has not yet become the beneficiary of it. What we variously call multilingualism, linguascapes, bridging, boundary-spanning, performance-anxiety, linguistic hegemony and status loss all have powerful practical consequences for management practitioners but they have not yet been translated into packages that help those managers understand this new era or manage it better.

Language research in international business is itself hindered by the traditions and challenges that have  prevented companies from taking the subject more seriously. These include the quasi-paralysis in the face of such a huge, diffuse phenomenon, the resulting inclination to treat language solely as an instrument and the dependence on the lingua franca model. Yes, international business researchers should draw on other disciplinary perspectives to explain emerging phenomena. But at some point, if we do not test our own findings and theories by applying them to management education and practice will we ever know the true value of our work?

Mary: Language clusters and language skills

As described in Vigier and Spencer-Oatey (2018) language-fluency clusters can impact the functioning of multinational teams. Configurations of fluent and less-fluent speakers can determine the success of team relations and processes, especially when language fluency is aligned with demographic and professional components of diversity; i.e., gender, age, corporate tenure, and functional sector. The alignment of a number of diversity factors to the language-fluency component can create a strong faultline splitting the team into 2 strong subgroups – leading to greater conflict and less collaboration. Managers thus need to take language proficiency into consideration as much as possible when designing multicultural project teams.

A top Marketing and Sales Manager from a French-based MNC provided me with comments regarding critical language-sensitive issues he has encountered in South America, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. To sum up: learning the local language can be a plus, but for several reasons it is not enough:

  1. it’s not just the language but also the local culture, thus the two are closely intertwined;
  2. even when people are speaking the same lingua franca (English), misunderstandings can occur owing to different meanings and interpretations attributed to the same words;
  3. speaking the local language too fluently could be considered invasive in some cultures/countries, such as Japan, where having a translator is highly advised not only to avoid uncomfortable situations, but also to give managers time to "breathe and think".

Vigier, M., & Spencer-Oatey, H. (2018). The interplay of rules, asymmetries in language fluency, and team dynamics in culturally diverse teams: Case study insights. Cross-Cultural and Strategic Management, 25(1), 157-182.

Anne-Wil: Learn from the past, but embrace the future

Topics & theories

If you are just starting out, do realise that this field has been very active, especially in the last 5 years. There are special issues in the International Studies of Management and Organization (2005), Journal of World Business (2011), Journal of International Business Studies (2014), International Journal of Crosscultural Management (2017) and the European Journal of International Management (2018). In addition, there is the Routledge Companion to Cross Cultural Management (2015) with a section on Languages, the JIBS Special Collection (2016) and two recent review articles in Management International Review (late 2017) and Journal of Management Studies (2018). There is also a forthcoming Routledge Companion to Language Research, which will be published early in 2020. My own research on language is summarised in these two blogposts: Language barriers in multinational companies and Language effects in international mail surveys. Familiarise yourself with these resources before you start your project. Don’t reinvent the wheel. However, don’t feel constrained by the past and do be open to phenomenon-based research in new contexts. Don’t shoehorn everything into existing theoretical frameworks. So, in sum: be aware of the foundations, but do feel free to break the mould.


Be aware that language also plays a key role in the research process. Rebecca Piekkari and Catherine Welch have published a lot of work on the role language in an interview and case study context, including the Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods for International Business. I have published several articles on how the language of a questionnaire might impact on the way people respond (see Language effects in international mail surveys). So review this material before you embark on case study or survey work. However, also try using new research methods such as sentiment analysis & big data, ethnography, experimental research, or QCA, qualitative comparative analysis. Shea Fan and I have a chapter on experimental research in the Routledge Companion to Language Research I mentioned earlier, there are excellent books on big data and there is a session on QCA at this conference. IB in general is very conservative in its use of research methods. Be brave to make a difference.


Much of the research so far has been done in a Western European or Japanese context. My work with Markus Pudelko published in JWB in 2013 has shown that even within these contexts MNCs in Anglophone, Nordic, Asian and big European countries have very different approaches to language management. However, we need to further diversify the countries/scholars involved in this field as different national languages are embedded in very different contexts and might be associated with very different economic, political, historical, and cultural contexts.

Round 2: Key methodological & substantive challenges

Mary: Involving linguists and field access

Linguists and non-linguistics are encouraged to reach out to each other, as these two communities are complementary. In fact, the French-based MNC where I have carried out research seemed more apt to give me access (I was seen as less of a « threat » - i.e., I was not coming in to tell them how to manage their business) when I positioned myself as a linguist. This proved advantageous in becoming more of an insider and and getting closer to my informants.

Nevertheless, for reasons of confidentiality, MNCs are often reluctant to give access to researchers, regardless of their field (linguist or non-linguist). Training and/or integration programs involving MCTs, for example, can thus offer viable alternatives to authentic settings. Investigating training teams (as well as UG or Graduate student teams) is acceptable in IB research, as the use of a lingua franca in teams comprised of members with different native languages is common in today’s organizations; i.e. when the research topic explores "fundamental" processes of human nature in an international setting, the findings are likely to generalize across diverse populations.

Rich language-sensitive data can be obtained through qualitative research in IB: ethnographic case studies involving observation and follow-up interviews to discuss the relevant moments of interactions can provide researchers with microscopic perspectives of phenomena investigated.

Anne-Wil: Develop a strong internal identity, but don’t stay in your silo

A maturing field

Most academics would agree that Rebecca Piekkari [with Denice and Lawrence Welch] established the field of Language in International Management over 20 years ago with an article Language: the forgotten factor in Multinational Management. However, by now there are probably well over 100 academics working in this field and language is no longer forgotten. Personally, I feel the field is now at risk of hyper-specialisation and isolation. Whilst it is very nice to see young scholars identifying themselves as “language in IB” or “language-sensitive” researchers, I think this research identity is too narrow and will not allow them to:

  • Address big societal challenges, which need a broader perspective.
  • Forge a successful career in academia; you really need to be able to relate to your colleagues in International Business and Business & Management more broadly. They are likely to still see this as a niche topic.

Expatriate research as an example

As an example of how not to do this, let’s look at the field of expatriate research. Although there has been some influence from the field of cross-cultural psychology and acculturation, expatriation research appears to have developed pretty much as a self-contained field since its inception in the 1970s, especially in Europe. Only in the last decade or so is it starting to branch out and "discover" that expatriates are not the only type of mobile employees. The field branched out to self-initiated expatriates and more recently highly skilled migrants and refugees. However even now, there seems to be a tendency to keep using the narrow and very specific category of company-assigned expatriates as the frame of reference. There also seems to be a lack of awareness among many of its researchers of the abundant research on mobility in fields such as the sociology of work, industrial relations, social policy, and cross-cultural psychology. Let's not make this same mistake in the language field.

Engage in interdisciplinary collaborations

As we know language permeates every aspect of society. This means that as language in International Business researchers we need to reach out to other disciplines such as communication studies, applied linguistics, socio- and psycholinguistics, intercultural communication, but also more broadly to social and cross-cultural psychology and cognitive science. This isn’t always easy, but staying in our own silo isn’t going to improve our research and the impact of our research.

Mary Yoko: Embrace a wider range of methods

Rather than language being used as one of many IVs in a series of variables in a regression analysis, recent scholarship has begun to look at the moderating and mediating effects of language as it affects conflict (language as a fault-line), cognition, perceived status, knowledge transfer, and organizational outcomes such as pay and promotion. To take this relatively nascent field forward we need research that goes well beyond looking at the explicit features of language (spoken or written) to include looking at how the tacit, unarticulated aspects of language affect organizational outcomes such as knowledge transfer, brokering, etc.

And, for this we need more language research that employs qualitative methods such as ethnomethodology that include observation of the day-to-day activities. We also need more language research where the dependant variables are key IB issues such as global integration, trust, global teaming dynamics, liability of foreignness, etc. Finally, there is an untapped opportunity to use language sensitive software such as programs that use lexical analyses based on explicit, codifiable language with a cultural meta-system such as wordij and LIWC, and analytical approaches to researching Big Data such as Netography coming out of recent work at MIT.

Terry: Embrace data richness and "new" types of respondents

Methodology is not something I consider to be an area of expertise and I am particularly lacking in knowledge of quantitative methods. However, as a reviewer and editor I have cause to consider methodology as a critical dimension of research and theory-building and I can offer some perspectives on methodology in this context. Firstly, I would say how uncomfortable I often am with what I call ‘under-reporting’ of field-work in many articles. All too frequently you come across a complex and lengthy theoretical justification for selection of a methodology and then very little evidence of the research instruments used and the actual data collected. This goes for both quantitative and qualitative research where the software used to analyze the data features more prominently in the article than the data itself. Very often the reader is given little tangible text or figures to describe a phenomenon. It is a great pity that the richness of data we have worked hard to obtain gets squeezed out of the picture so often. If this is due to editorial guidelines and shortage of space to provide such data, the authors should indicate an on-line resource where the full data is made publicly available.

In the quantitative area, I find rather too much reliance on self-reporting by, for example, international managers or team members and insufficient triangulation. When applied to concepts like language proficiency and intercultural competence, this is particularly inadequate. More specifically regarding language, I do not wish to deny the importance of multicultural teams in the international organization but they are not by any means the only unit of analysis we should be looking at. Within the organization leaders and managers, particularly of divisions responsible for operations in foreign markets or divisions facing foreign-language speaking consumers or suppliers are under-researched. The latter-group, which is heavily represented in the innovation literature under the term ‘eco-systems’ are critical for learning and new product and service development across business units. We could be looking more further afield than we are now to discover the role played by language and culture in international business.

Concluding statements


Learn from the past, but embrace the future: In your own work, don’t be too reverent to pioneers in the field. Our articles only reflect what was the state of knowledge of the field at the time; it is up to you to improve on them.Yes, sometimes academics will be offended if you expose flaws or shortcomings in their work as I discovered with my first academic article on careless referencing in expatriate failure literature. But most academics realise this is how academic knowledge expands and I don’t think we have any particularly big egos in this field. I would be very happy to read good research that challenges my own work.

Develop a strong internal identity, but don’t stay in your silo: When you reach out to other disciplines, be both modest and proud. Be modest and don’t think you know everything about another discipline as soon as you have read a few articles in the field. Be ready to learn from other researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds. But also be proud of what you have to offer researchers in other disciplines. The very best research in Business & Management is actually very good indeed. It combines theoretical sophistication, empirical rigour and practical relevance, a combination that not many disciplines can claim.

Mary: GEM&L

In her capacity of General Secretrary Mary Vigier introduced GEM&L: a French-based scientific association of professors, scholars and professionals focused on issues of language and communication in the world of business and organizations. As an interdisciplinary endeavor, GEM&L brings together academics from various fields including linguistics, communications, and management sciences as well as consultants, trainers, and managers working in multilingual contexts. GEM&L is member of the EFMD (European Fondation for Management Development and of the FNEGE (French Foundation for Management Education). GEM&L aims to strengthen the connections between research, education and the professional world in a way that informs management education in today’s academic institutions. For a write-up of GEM&L's last conference see: GEM&L Sheffield: Translation in International Business and Management

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