English is also a Choice! – by Daniela Xhixha

Source: Unsplash.com

Basel is home to many international and global companies that use English as their business language to secure a productive internal and external communication. Although this language practice might be considered slightly challenging by some, English successfully continues to be the most used language in the corporate world. While trying to understand how this practice works in Basel, I was curious to find out if English is not only a demand of the companies but also a free choice of their employees. To give an answer to this question, I interviewed 4 employees of a global company in Basel and the findings were intriguing. But first of all, allow me to give a brief introduction of the interviewees and the company’s requirements.

The four employees applied for an English-speaking job position. They had to move to Switzerland because of their work and all of them speak at least one of the country’s national languages. This was not a requirement for the job but still an advantage. In respect to their anonymity, the employees will be presented as Meghan, Eva, Tom and Joana. In regard to Switzerland’s national languages, Meghan speaks French and Italian, Eva speaks Italian while Tom and Joana both speak French.

Initially, I looked at their language choice on reading general informative emails. The company sends general types of emails like New Pandemic Restrictions, New Season Greetings or company’s major changes in at least 6 different languages in this particular order: English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, etc. Both Meghan and Eva said that they would always choose English to read these kinds of emails while Tom didn’t have a preferred version and Joana would choose a combination of both English and French. When asked if there were any particular reasons behind their choices, Tom claimed that the English version was too generic to him and he would rather choose another language, meanwhile the other three employees stated that in fact they find the English version more detailed and usually more descriptive. Meghan also added that often, a larger number of words was used in the English version which facilitated her understanding of the message. Even though all employees speak at least two of the six languages used in the email, the English version is the choice for three of them.

But this is not the only moment of choice that the interviewees have regarding language in their workplace. There is also a choice about the language they choose to converse with their colleagues during breaks. All four employees assert that most of the time they choose English to conduct their conversations and only sometimes another language, depending on the relationship they have with the other person and their linguistic knowledge. Meghan claims that English comes naturally to her due to being in an English-speaking workplace for the day, Eva states that it is easier to use English rather than any other language to conduct small talk, while Tom claims that even though he mostly uses English, he would prefer to use French like he and Joana do sometimes when addressing their French speaking colleagues.

The usage of another language in an English workplace, despite of usually being in a minimum frequency such as this, can often create misunderstandings and uncomfortable situations among colleagues. During the small percentage of times that Tom and Joana speak in another language they do so to possibly create a bond with the interlocutor thanks to the shared linguistic knowledge. But all of them assert that they have never spoken another language in a group conversation where someone does not understand it due to being respectful. However, Meghan, Eva and Joana assert that they have been part of a German language conversation between local employees during their lunch break at least once which they state to have made them feel slightly uncomfortable.

In conclusion, English it is mostly used due to being demanded, but sometimes also because it is a free choice. Three out of four employees choose to read the multiple language emails in English even though they are free to choose whatever language they want. Of course, a later study would be concentrated on the reasons why they do so, and if the English version of the email  is actually more detailed than the other ones. Is this really a free choice or somehow an implicit demand? In small talks, two of the employees would mostly use English and if they used another language, they only did so when their colleagues shared their linguistic origins. But they would certainly switch to English if somebody else with other linguistic knowledge would join the conversation. Overall, I found out that there is clearly a choice of English in two out of four interviewed employees and this shows that English is not only a demand.

by Daniela Xhixha