La Rivista per l'insegnamento e l'apprendimento delle lingue

Paradoxes of language in the new economy

Monica Heller

Ausgehend vom Wandel in der industriellen Basis in Französisch-Kanada beschreibt die Autorin die veränderte Rolle von Sprache und zweisprachigen Fertigkeiten in der modernen Dienstleistungswirtschaft. Zentral ist eine Spannung zwischen Standardisierung und Rationalisierung von Prozessen und der Kundenorientierung wie z.B. in Call Centres. Sind in diesem Kontext Sprachfähigkeiten zu belohnende technische Fertigkeiten oder ein angeborenes Talent, das den Werktätigen erlaubt, sich anzupassen, und nicht besonders belohnt werden muss? Im Kontrast zur Welt der Telekommunikation steht die Wiederbelebung der Geschichte Akadiens im Dienst des Tourismus. Mit Authentizität wird die früher stigmatisierte franco-kanadische Sprachvarietät scheinbar aufgewertet. Es kommt zu verschiedenen Paradoxen, und Heller schlägt vor, Sprache auch als einen Ort der Konstruktion von sozialen Differenzen und Ungleichheit zu betrachten. Abschliessend stellt sie Fragen zur Rolle von Sprache in Bildung und in den neuen Industriebereichen. (Red)

Moncton, New Brunswick, was once a city of railyards for Canadian National Railways. English-speakers, many of them managers for CN, lived high on the river bluff overlooking the centre of town. Working-class francophone families, whose men worked the railyards, lived on the other side of the river. Communication was important for the managers, whose lives could be conducted in English within a fairly small circle. For francophones, communication was about solidarity, but certainly not about work: as Josiane Boutet has pointed out, in industrial production communication was actively discouraged, since it distracted workers from the physical tasks at hand (Boutet 2001). This scenario played itself out in various ways across Canada, from industrial towns to mining and lumber towns to fishing villages, where language and ethnicity reinforced class divisions in an economy based on primary and secondary sector production.
And in Canada, as across the industrialized world, those economies began to collapse, restructure and reorganize globally in the 1980s. Industrial production went off-shore, as the expression would have it (or, as some people say, it “delocalized”). Managers suddenly had to figure out how to negotiate and run plants in China, Indonesia, India or Mexico, and to strike deals with branches or buyers or suppliers around the world. Middle management was “downsized”, and workers organized into more decentralized teams around increasingly computerized production, requiring literacy skills new to the production floor (Gee, et al. 1996). And the world economy turned more and more to the tertiary sector, to services and information (Castells 2000), that is, to economic activities in which communication plays a much greater role.
Language is now central to economic activities, both in the means of production, and as a product itself. But that phenomenon is producing some interesting, and sometimes contradictory effects. Notably, there is a tension between efforts on the part of the service and information economy to standardize processes and products (they are easier to manage and to measure), and to allow for the flexibility and variability that attention to “meeting customers’ needs” can require. The second important tension is between treating language as a technical skill (easier to measure and evaluate, but then also something that needs to be recognized, managed and paid for), and as a kind of innate talent (hard to manage, but does not require remuneration and allows room for worker adaptation to local conditions). We see both these tensions emerging in a wide variety of new economy activities, for example in places like call centres, but also in activities like tourism.
Let us return to the Moncton area for some examples. The regional, and ethnolinguistically stratified, economy was in the past based not only on industrial activity like the CN railyards, but also, and very heavily, on the cod fishery. As has been the case elsewhere with primary resources, the fishing industry has also changed radically as resources run out, become too expensive to exploit locally, or require more conservative management to prevent depletion. The francophone workers in the fishery, the lumber industry, the railyards, all have seen their major sources of employment shrink, disappear or transform almost beyond recognition. What has emerged as a result? [...]

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