Thursday, January 13, 2005

Language at work

So, it's the time of year in the college where I work when we all get our annual "performance management review". If you've been a good boy/girl, you might get your "professional standards payment"; if you've been a bit rubbish you might be subjected to "marginal performance procedures". Either way, you get "targets", an "action plan" and "Continuing Professional Development". It's all good stuff, but it does require us to issue new teachers with a small dictionary to explain all the management-speak.

Now, every year, my boss does my "PMR" and after we've done all the grown-up serious target-setting, he gives me a spoof set of targets to make me laugh. In the spirit of continuous progress, he always sets me a new target to reduce the number of times I swear in team meetings. It's a target we both know I will be completely unable to achieve, but it's all in jest and an entirely acceptable part of our normal jokey rapport. But it's not always like that at work, and this week I've been reading about a couple of scenarios where the ways in which managers have tried to control how people use language at work have resulted in court cases.

First up is news in The Times of the French company, in France, in which it is company policy to use English as the working language. This means that all its software and company manuals are written in English. However, trade unions have just taken them to court and won the right for hygeine and safety documents to be translated into French. The trade union official cited in the article points out the absurdity of company practice, whereby meetings held between French speaking French people are held in English.

The second article was published before Christmas but it links in nicely with this. At a McDonalds branch in Manchester, employees were warned by their manager that disciplinary action would be taken against any employee who spoke in any language other than English while in the workplace. So there you are, having a pee, when in comes your Urdu neighbour or your Spanish cousin, you ask them how they're doing in your common tongue, and you're up before the boss for a verbal warning! How harsh is that?! The case has been referred to the Commission for Racial Equality.

So, in both articles the issue is being forced by an employer to use English. It raises really interesting questions about the global spread of English, and the way this may be resisted for all sorts of reasons to do with personal and political identity, as well as skill in its use. And it also draws our attention to the instrumental power that employers frequently seek to have over our language use at work. I'm just grateful that my employer's only joking!

For The Times article, the usual - click on link to homepage; type "French hail victory" into the search box; click on "search the site"; select only item

French hail victory over English

McDonalds orders a full English


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