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Language, skill and authenticity in the globalized new economy, by Monica Heller


For a number of reasons too complex to review here (but see Heller 2002; Heller and Labrie 2003), including the social movements described, the political economic basis of community reproduction began to collapse in the 1980s. Building on the basis of socioeconomic mobility already established, and on its sources of legitimacy, many regions have undertaken the move into the tertiary sector through attempts to develop heritage tourism activities (cf. Moïse 2003; Roy and Gélinas 2004). In many cases, the idea is to first target a francophone clientele, placing language at the centre of what would make this heritage tourism experience different from others, playing both on French and Québécois senses of affinity with the rest of francophone Canada, and on the idea of the "added value" of the possibility to obtain services in French. But North American tourism being what it is, it makes little business sense to ignore the English-speaking clientele the continent affords, nor those from other parts of the world whose paths are already leading them into the right regions (notably, at the moment, this includes a large number of Germanspeakers).

Thus the very linguistic homogeneity which is one important symbolic element of authenticity in the heritage tourism market proves also to be a potential obstacle to attracting tourists who speak other languages. The result is usually an attempt at a discursive division of labour which signals a distinction between language practices used to construct local authenticity and those used to manage relations with clients.

Indeed, this concern with authenticity also turns up in local competition over labour market resources. Since language skills, including multilingual ones, are increasingly important characteristics among those that employers look for, both in deciding where they are likely to find an appropriate labour pool, and in evaluating individual employees, they can also be deployed as ways for employee populations or employees to distinguish themselves from each other in order to compete for jobs.

Thus, the province of Quebec, on its investment website, advertises to prospective investors the attractiveness of a bilingual labour pool with extra language skills (meaning skills in more than one language) that employers will not have to pay for (2):  "In Quebec, there are 2.9 million bilingual people in 2002, or nearly 41% of Quebec’s population. The widespread use of French and English affords client contact centres considerable flexibility, this facilitating access to major markets. Quebec’s bilingual labour pool, the biggest in Canada, is a key advantage for businesses that wish to gain access to 7 million French-speaking Canadians without paying bilingualism bonuses. Over 80 languages in addition to French and English are spoken in Quebec".

The province of New Brunswick similarly touted its bilingual workforce in working to attract the call centre industry in the 1990s. In the post-industrial Ontario town where Roy conducted her research, the municipality, fighting Canada’s highest rate of unemployment after major heavy industry restructuring and relocation, similarly targeted call centres as employers, and produced the following by way of advertising: “(The city) is not just heavy metal any more. (The city) is poised to challenge winds of technology as they breathe life into a new world economy based upon rivers of information through its call centre facilities. An old hand at capitalizing upon waterways of opportunity, (the city) is perfectly positioned geographically to be Canada’s high-tech alternative. (…) Fifteen percent of (the city’s) population is English/French bilingual and many are multilingual, with Italian being the third predominant language spoken. The benefits of this francophone and ethnic presence are not lost on any employer doing business in French-speaking Canadian communities or in a global marketplace.”

But here, the claim goes beyond merely describing the language skills of the labour pool; rather, the claim is explicitly made that ethnicity conveys legitimacy of proficiency, it conveys authenticity of competence. If you want a real speaker of language X, hire a member of ethnic group X. In that sense, the old equation of language, nation and ethnicity still remains discursively valid. But, as Roy showed, and has we have seen confirmed in other sites, this claim to the value of authenticity can run into the contradictions of values placed on standardized ideas of quality, leaving employers and employees alike in a confused muddle of competing language ideologies. In the New Brunswick call centre in which we have been doing research, for example, Acadian workers struggle to meet Québécois and French normative expectations for their French, and acquiesce to the dominance of English as language of communication with management, while symbolically maintaining their privileged access to the bilingual positions which they were hired to fill by using the local variety among themselves in work-related tasks (Boudreau 2003).

In the end, the new economy raises the following contradictions: against the skilling of language, to be measured and paid for, it opposes the idea of language as talent, certainly to be prized (as one might prize punctuality and neatness) but not to be recognized or remunerated; against the value of standardized quality control in the form of normed language forms and standard practices, it opposes the value of adaptability to linguistic variability and of authenticity as linked to ethnicized ideas of language ownership and to unstandardized, variable vernaculars; and against the value of nationalist homogeneity as a guarantee of authenticity, it opposes variability and multilingualism in the service of access to markets.

3. The language worker

What is new then, about the globalized new economy, from a sociolinguistic perspective, is not so much globalization itself (after all, people and goods and ideas have been wandering around the world for a long time), but rather the economic conditions of the new economy. We used to sell our physical labour; now we sell our intellectual and communicative labour, both as skill and as cultural artefact.

The commodification of language in both these ways is beginning to be recognized, for example, by the Canadian government-sponsored initiative on "language industries", and by many European Union initiatives on language training (of which one of the more interesting includes a web-based program called Soccerlingua which uses soccer and soccer players to promote learning English, Catalan, Castilian, German and Italian; thanks again go to Joan Pujolar for alerting me to this website). Multilingualism is the major focus of these initiatives, building on local language resources as a guarantee of the quality of the professionalized and credentialized multilingualism-related expertise to be found in certain labour pools.

As this view of language spreads, we are likely to see heavier emphasis on the development of the role of the language worker, a worker whose training, certification and evaluation will spawn a set of related professions (language managers, perhaps). While this is currently concentrated in the area of multilingualism (language teaching and translation), it may also connect to the hitherto less visible forms of communicative work I have described in this article, and that are central to many activities of the new economy. The question remains of how we will resolve the contradictions mentioned earlier, the contradictions between skilling and authenticity that traverse the sociolinguistic new economy today.

The very concept of a language worker is likely to remain controversial for some time to come, since it brings out these profound contradictions in how we see language. It also reveals all the problems connected to the ways in which language norms have long been connected to symbolic domination (Bourdieu 1982), that is, to masking and legitimizing relations of power. A central focus on language as labour, and on authenticity as material capital, threatens to make visible the ways in which language functions in processes of symbolic domination. All the more reason, then, to closely examine how these issues are taken up, not only by States and State agencies, or by NGOs and corporations, but also by those of us who are most closely involved in the new forms of language-related structures of power which may be emerging.

4. Bibliography

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Heller, Monica. Éléments d'une sociolinguistique critique. Paris: Didier, 2002.

Heller, Monica, and Normand Labrie (eds.). Discours et identités. La francité canadienne entre modernité et mondialisation. Fernelmont (Belgique): Éditions modulaires européennes, 2003.

LeMenestrel, Sara. La voie des Cadiens. Paris: Belin, 1999.

Moïse, Claudine. Le rôle du tourisme en Ontario dans la redéfinition de la minorité franco-ontarienne. Contacts des langues et minorisation. Sion (Suisse), 2003.

Roy, Sylvie. "Bilingualism and standardization in a Canadian call center: challenges for a linguistic minority community". In Language Socialization in Multilingual Societies. R. Bayley and S. Schecter (eds.). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2003. Pp. 269-287.

Roy, Sylvie, and Chantal Gélinas. Le tourisme pour les Franco-Albertains: Une porte d’entrée au monde. Francophonies d’Amérique, 2004.

Strathern, M. (ed.). Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. London: Routledge, 2000.

Yarymowich, Maia. Language Tourism in Canada: Theorizing Language Education as a Global Commodity. University of Toronto, 2003.

Monica Heller
University of Toronto

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