While completing an exercise during the cross-cultural management class which needed us to rate certain factors according to their importance in selecting a leader to work on a project abroad, I had rated language as one of the most important factors that constitute a leader’s ability to be successful. Ironically when we got to see the ideal ratings, language wasn’t rated with the highest importance. This provoked me to dig deeper into this scenario to research about the role of language in multicultural teams and to what extent does language affect the team dynamics while completing a task. This paper would thus address how language forms a part of an individual’s identity and how it influences multicultural and multilingual teams.
With the fast-changing demographics due to the increased population movements within and across borders, individuals need to be comfortable working with team members with different background and cultures, leveraging the diversity of talent towards completing the task efficiently and successfully. But this perspective also highlights that the notion of a native speaker cannot be applied as the sole model in language learning, breaking the traditional monolingual bias. This also opens new perspectives in terms of the development of an individual’s identity and its professional skills. Language identities such as being multilingual or monolingual, or a native speaker of a language which an individual is attributed to, are based on its regional usage and are oversimplified as they do not consider an individual’s actual communication behaviour in multicultural contexts. The traditional notions of language are defied in such situations which require the participants to have a thorough knowledge of each other’s background. Globalization is an important factor that has contributed to the falling of the rigid borders of language identity. There are various aspects of an individual’s personal background including ethnic, social and racial culture which go far beyond the national culture and shape up the reactions and expectations of individuals.
Individuals use the resources acquired through their multiple identities to assimilate their behaviour in a particular situation with ease. Individuals learn to interpret social contexts through the interaction in different cultural settings, where they build on a skill-set through retrospection and use the acquired skill set in multicultural business environments. Thus, having individuals with a multicultural and multilingual background helps the other members in the team to gain new skills that they could apply in similar settings with members having different cultural backgrounds. Bicultural individuals have been found to have enhanced cognitive skills such as cross-linguistic awareness, high levels of tolerance and emotional management as compared to a relatively narrow competence that a native speaker might have over an idealized form of language. These individuals have a higher capability to gauge the context in multicultural teams and help alleviate the team resources. Out of the 31 participants who were asked whether being multilingual/multicultural makes any difference, all of them answered that being multicultural/ multilingual gives them an enhanced skill set to leverage in the global business environment.
It is often observed that speakers may switch languages or alternate between dialect while addressing a group of individuals with different backgrounds to create social meaning and communicate their message effectively. Multilingual speakers possess unique skills that empower them to negotiate their identities while working in various social contexts according to the unique needs each context demands. An individual leading a multicultural team would use such ways to create trust and promote shared values amongst the members. It can be a bit risky as there is always a possibility of groups and divisiveness, and the individual should have a clear understanding of the context and backgrounds of the people who are a part of that particular team. While talking to a few participants as a part of gaining insights for the research, it was quite interesting to note that, code-switching, outside of formal settings had quite a negative impact on the team members who were not a part of that conversation. Speakers switching to their native languages while socializing make their teammates feel excluded which affects the team dynamics negatively. Socialization processes taking place outside formal settings through verbal interaction plays an important role in consolidating working processes and building rapport and trust. Holding informal conversations and small talk through which the team members get to know each other, understand the backgrounds of their coworkers and get an insight into their identity. These activities require an extremely subtle and sensitive use of language.
Lingua franca, which is a term used for a common language used as a bridge to communicate for various reasons when the participants involved have different native languages. Multilingual individuals integrate various elements of their native language into the lingua franca. Language can be a divisive factor in teams, as it is an important factor of an individual’s identity which can lead to discrimination or status enhancement. The traditional distinction based on whether the individual is a native or a non-native speaker also contributes to these negative effects. Underlying tensions due to task-related difficulties can be aggravated and channelled through the language-based identity differences in some teams, thus language differences can act as a catalyst making situations worse. It is interesting to see that 12 of the 96 participants said that they were assigned lesser work related to speaking due to their lack of fluency. Such scenarios can negatively affect that individual, making them feel left out and affecting their performance as they lose interest in the tasks assigned to them.
Coworkers learn to understand and accept divergent discursive practices while working in diverse teams which can stop the language differences from being a divisive factor and help the team to be more open-minded, leading to enhanced cooperation. This solidarity is due to the metacognitive abilities that these individuals develop, individuals who aren’t bicultural/ multicultural as well, through their multicultural experiences making them more understanding and accepting towards the differences in the team. This can be tied to the findings from the survey where 40 out of the 96 participants said that they were encouraged by their team members to participate and were extremely supportive towards them when they were working in a multicultural team setting and the common language was different from their native language.
A study on building global virtual teams is a good example which emphasizes the importance of socializing beyond your assigned tasks. Individuals draw on the resources within their linguistic repertoire and their multiple identities. During our X-culture project, we relied on our skills gained by previous experiences working in multicultural/multilingual teams and by using the abilities to possessed being multicultural individuals ourselves. Getting to know the team members by learning about their culture, their identity and thus getting an overall idea of the context helped us in bridging the differences and improving our performance as a team. This can be explained through the notion of successful teams are the ones who have individuals willing to embrace change and learn new behaviours.
Cultural and especially language differences provide an opportunity for high-performing individuals to change and adapt to the differences, embrace the divergent discursive practices and thus understand the context of each individual in the team. Though almost 46 out of the 96 participants who took the survey said that they were more comfortable working in teams with members who speak their native language. Teams made up of speakers of different languages can face challenges with respect to sharing the same team identity and also exchanging ideas through informal exchanges outside of regular task processes. Hearing someone speak a non-native language or have an unfamiliar accent can distinguish a person psychologically as an outgroup member. Unless the individuals are required to speak the common language while completing any technical or other work-related tasks, they are likely to avoid communicating in that language due to the fear of being negatively perceived because of their lack of fluency. Individuals in such situations can be caught up in a dilemma where they have to choose between managing their identity and any potential tensions within the group arising due to the differences. It can take a lot of effort to conform to a multicultural team and individuals were more apprehensive about changing due to nervousness in being a part of a team with speakers who didn’t speak their native language. As learned during the course, change can often be perceived as extremely uncomfortable, but it is extremely necessary for an individual in a team to change in order to meet the expected performance goals that are expected from that individual.
In the end, I would just like to highlight that the team composition plays an important part in shaping performance. Having a balance and avoiding clustering by nationalities is pivotal towards forming trust and prevent teams from the bias occurring due to the domination by groups of similar minded people. These factors are necessary to build a shared team culture or “meta-identity” and prevent the formation of groups along the cultural and language differences. Fluency of a particular language or in-depth of knowledge of national culture is not as important as to the extent at which individuals use their metacognitive abilities towards learning about multiple languages and cultures. We can, therefore, look more into the language-general/language-specific skill set distinction rather than the notion of native/non-native speaker framework. It is slightly contradictory to note that almost 44 out of the 96 participants in the survey said that the difference between cultures and languages didn’t quite affect their team dynamics while working in a multicultural/multilingual team. An explanation for this can be attributed to other background factors and context. Individuals from a particular institution or an organization who are a part of that community who share the same values, ideas and objectives wouldn’t consider language and cultural differences as a major factor due to the experiences that have brought them together and be a part of that particular team.
- Cohen, L., & Kassis-Henderson, J. (2017). Revisiting culture and language in global management teams: Toward a multilingual turn. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 17(1), 7-22.
- Vigier, M., & Spencer-Oatey, H. (2017). Code-switching in newly formed multinational project teams: Challenges, strategies and effects. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 17(1), 23-37.
- Woo, D., & Giles, H. (2017). Language attitudes and intergroup dynamics in multilingual organizations. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 17(1), 39-52.