The Linguistic Pecking Order: Status and Language Skills in Organizations

Language Skills in OrganizationsWe often write about one of the primary benefits of language learning being improved career prospects. That’s definitely true, but what exactly does that look like in the day-to-day lives of people in an organization?

Tsedal B. Neeley published an article in the journal Organization Science titled “Language Matters: Status Loss and Achieved Status Distinctions in Global Organizations”. In it, Professor Neeley describes the inner politics of a French high-tech company that adopts English as its official language, or lingua franca.

Just as in the wider world, status within an organization can be gained and lost based on a variety of factors, one of which is communication skills. Professor Neeley wanted to see to what degree those skills improved an employee’s perceived status.

To start, when the company moved to English, every non-native speaker felt a sense of status loss, no matter what their fluency level or cultural background. In essence, the adoption of English as the lingua franca made non-English natives feel like outsiders – perhaps a logical result, but still interesting to see it confirmed.

Professor Neeley asked the employees to self-assess their English fluency, which is where some of the most interesting results of her study take place.

There’s a truth about the Olympic Games – the unhappiest person on the medal podium is the winner of the silver medal. The gold medalist is obviously happy and the bronze is happy to have a medal at all. The silver medalist will always wonder what could have been.

The same is true in the study’s findings.

Those employees who rated their English proficiency as high or low perceived less status loss within the office than those who thought they have achieved medium English proficiency. This may be due to expectations; the proficient are confident in their skills and the least proficient expect less results, but those stuck in the middle consistently see their linguistic shortcomings.

Overall, the study’s findings seem to confirm the case of language learning within the workplace, particularly if an employee is trying to learn such a complicated language as English. Language study is the only way to gain confidence in communication skills and build a more cohesive corporate culture where everyone can come together.

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