Mobility, Commodity and Language Ideologies: Managing Multilingualism in an International Airport

Alexandre Duchêne

University of Basel, Switzerland

WS129: Language as social practice in the globalized new economy

The aim of this paper is to interrogate the way institutions devoted to the circulation of people – such as airports - deal with the management of linguistic diversity. The boom of the tourism industry, the increase of international business relations as well as the spread of transport facilities positions travel as a strategic sector within the globalized new economy. The act of traveling implies that people – and goods -- are circulating across borders, entailing diverse forms of language practices and language contact. In that regard, airports can be considered as a key space for the exploration of a) the impact of the circulation of people on language practices, and b) the strategies used by globalized institutions in order to manage [linguistic] diversity. Based on ethnographic research in an airport ground logistics company in German-speaking Switzerland, I will emphasize the way this institution embeds multilingual services in what it understands as cost-effective, rational management practices. Indeed, the company understands multilingualism as important in three ways : First, multilingualism is linked to national concerns (e.g. the use of French – beside German - as a symbolic acknowledgment of the pan-Swiss identity of the airport). Second, multilingualism operates as a clear marketing argument and a commodity in order to gain new clients by providing services in the national languages of flag carriers. Third, multilingualism is seen as a key element of effective practical solutions to problems of passenger circulation, and of work more generally. It is also understood as a means of achieving cost-effectiveness and a contribution to overall rationalization of work practices. The company’s central strategy to achieve this is to recruit employees who already possess a multilingual repertoire. This allows the company to exploit employee multilingualism as corporate value added while naturalizing individual employees’ language skills, and hence erasing them as value added skills requiring remuneration.

Session: Workshop (part 2)
Language as social practice in the globalized new economy
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 03