Multilingualism can increase creativity in the EU knowledge economy

The DYLAN research project explored the role of multilingualism in communication, with particular attention to its functions in knowledge creation and within the workplace. The project has produced guidance for European policy makers, businesses, educational institutions and the general public on how to make the best use of multilingualism.

Multilingualism has the potential to bring major advantages, in terms of creativity and effectiveness, for businesses, education and European institutions, as well as for individuals. However, these advantages are dependent on factors such as measures to accommodate people’s multilingual repertoires in a flexible way.

Major changes can be seen in workplaces throughout Europe as companies acquire international partners, with an increasing number of staff from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. DYLAN aimed to find out how a European knowledge-based society, designed to ensure economic competitiveness and social cohesion, can be created in a European Union with twenty-three official languages.

The project studied language policy in three terrains or areas - European institutions (such as the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council); higher education (a sample of universities in Belgium, Finland, other Nordic countries, Italy, Romania, Spain and Switzerland), and international or cross-border businesses. It also analysed actual practice using surveys, and audio and video recording.

Although in all three areas the importance of the English language was emphasised by many respondents, in reality day-to-day communication was found to be very multilingual. Audio and video recordings in various settings disproved the common assumption that everyone speaks English in order to communicate. Instead, participants were found to adopt a wide range of strategies including:

  • OLON - one language only.
  • OLAT – one language at a time.
  • ALAST – many or potentially all languages at the same time.
  • ALAAT – all languages at all times.

In addition, in different meetings and settings, participants' strategies varied according to whether they displayed greatly asymmetrical repertoires of languages (exolingual situation) or shared similar ones at a high level of proficiency (endolingual situation).

One solution chosen is a ‘lingua franca’ - a kind of hybrid, or ‘rough-and-ready’ version of a language. This could be based on English, or on Spanish - used by Portuguese and Italian speakers - or even North Sami in Polar regions. Another solution is the ‘lingua receptiva’ mode – in which everyone speaks his/her own language and is expected to understand those used by other speakers.

Other findings include:

  • The choice of language(s) and whether a mono- or multilingual approach is adopted in meetings depends to a large extent on speakers’ levels of competence, and on the extent to which participants are encouraged to take part or feel excluded from the activity.
  • Savings generated by attempts to use one language only may be cancelled out by the resultant cost of language learning by participants and poor communication.
  • Multilingual repertoires are a valuable resource for the construction, transmission and use of knowledge, providing access to, and helping participants retain and classify new information. Managers interviewed argued that teams that are mixed linguistically have greater resources, knowledge and experience, making them more efficient, dynamic, innovative and creative.
  • Universities see multilingualism as a tool for integration, cohesion and mutual understanding, which may improve students’ employability and make for more resourceful researchers.
  • Areas of conflict may exist for universities where they wish to internationalise by using the English language as a medium, but also have a mission to use local languages. It is in areas of fragility and contradiction like this that positive action should be taken.

To take advantage of the potential for increased efficiency and creativity depends however on:

  • Making optimum use of the ‘intermediate space’ that linguistic diversity creates between different languages and cultures.
  • Effectively managing communication between people of asymmetric competence (exolingual communication).

The researchers suggest that measures are needed to assess and improve diversity of staff language skills and make representations more flexible. Policies are needed to create, and give preferential treatment to multilingual teams within companies and institutions, and to help individuals and organisations develop their ability to operate bilingually, or to use several languages.

One of DYLAN’s outcomes is the development of a methodology for the design of a new set of linguistic indicators. Whereas the few existing indicator systems are essentially descriptive, the DYLAN project offers analytical indicators with which more or less multilingual modes of operation can be compared in terms of their relative degree of efficiency and fairness. They enable businesses, institutions and universities to compare different communication policies or strategies, and select the ones which are the most efficient and fair.

By combining theoretical perspectives on language policy analysis and detailed observations in the three terrains, DYLAN has designed a list of over 200 indicators, on which users can draw to design a system matching their specific needs. Unlike other indicator systems, this system takes account of the richly patterned complexity of actors’ actual language practices as observed in various settings, and goes beyond other endeavours at the EU level that focus on actors’ foreign language abilities.

The proposed indicators also meet the standard requirements of indicator systems, namely validity, reliability, sensitivity, stability, feasibility, representativeness, intelligibility, timeliness, comparability and power. These indicators take into account two contradictory forces at play in language dynamics - on the one hand, progressivity and efficiency, related to immediacy and simplicity, and on the other hand, inter-subjectivity and fairness, related to participation, collaboration and decoding of complexity. Both are necessary components of successful communication.

DYLAN concludes that multilingualism can be successfully managed by exploiting synergies between different and mutually complementary strategies. This perspective opens the way to a renewed management of linguistic diversity, fostering unity in diversity.

DYLAN - Language Dynamics and Management of Diversity (duration: 1/10/2006 – 30/9/2011) was an Integrated Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.

See: http://www.dylan-project.org

Contact: Anne-Claude Berthoud, anne-claude.berthoud@unil.ch; Kirsten Leufgen, kirsten.leufgen@sciprom.ch