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
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.
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
Quebecs population. The widespread use of French and English affords client contact
centres considerable flexibility, this facilitating access to major markets. Quebecs
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".
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 Canadas 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 Canadas high-tech alternative. (
Fifteen percent of (the citys) 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.
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.
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.
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