Interview by Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: “Language Policy in Business: Discourse, Ideology and Practice” is one of the first critical sociolinguistic studies on minority language policy in private companies. Why did you decide to explore corporate policies as a site for language policy definition, appropriation and implementation? And why is corporate policy an important arena for debates about, and struggles over, language revitalisation movements in present-day Europe?
Elisabeth Barakos: So, I have always been interested in the everyday politics of minority languages. It all started out with an internship at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, where I worked for the European Charter for Minority Languages – my first touching point with language policy, so to speak. Bilingual Wales in the UK has historically been characterised by language decline and marginalisation vis-à-vis the dominant majority language English. Whilst ample scholarship documents the use of Welsh in education, little do we (still) know about the world of work and the field of the economy more widely. The private sector has been one that struck a chord with me since this has been a space where the use of Welsh is (largely) voluntary, unlike the public sector that is legally obliged to provide a bilingual service. In that sense, I was interested to look at, and explain, what was happening in the field of business in terms of bilingualism. That’s when I also learnt that what I was observing connected to politics and the economy more broadly, and wider structural processes of linguistic inequality and historical domination.
Returning to your question over why corporate language policy is important: I guess the answer lies in the fact that the economic sphere touches on largely every social aspect of life. Private sector businesses in Wales thus serve as a unique and highly relevant terrain in which to investigate opportunities for bilingual practices. Likewise, bilingualism in business raises inherent questions over language rights as well as equality of opportunity, perception and treatment of Welsh vis-à-vis English. And crucially, it also ties to issues of identity, nationalism, culture and belonging.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: This monograph clearly demonstrates that language policy has a life beyond the written official document as it is debated, negotiated and implemented by a wide array of social actors in specific socio-political, economic and historical contexts. In order to study language policy as a process, you have proposed a discursive and critical-sociolinguistic approach to the practices, ideologies, and discourses in the promotion of bilingualism in businesses. Could you describe your approach to language policy in context for the blog readers?
Elisabeth Barakos: Yes, so my point of departure has been to move away from text-centred approaches to language policy towards an understanding of language policy as a discursive process that engages people’s discourses, ideologies and practices. A focus on policy-as-text has been quite central in the field of language policy studies and discourse studies more widely at the time. Via my readings of critical sociolinguistic, linguistic anthropological and ethnographic work, I learnt that every text has a context, a history and a dialogic relationship with the social. So looking at policy documents alone didn’t quite do the job for me. Combing texts with data on language policy agents (e.g. business representatives), their views, practices and experiences on the ground and attending to questions of how language ideology surfaces in text, discourse and practice, made much more sense to better grasp what’s at stake in bilingual Wales, for whom, and with which tangible consequences. In that sense, a discursive approach to language policy offers a multi-method and multi-perspective way into analysing minority language communities.
What I am trying to say is that language policy has a life beyond the text. It has a past, present and future we need to consider analytically. How, then, can we do that? By engaging with the people who create, distribute and consume policy, and by situating language policy within its social structure and historical context.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: Sociolinguists actively participate in an on-going conversation about language issues involving many different people and organisations with different socio-political and economic interests. I would like to know in what ways you have established relations with Welsh universities and governmental bodies and how your research has been received so far. In terms of researcher positionality, I am curious to hear more about you negotiated your positioning as a researcher who does not speak Welsh with informants during your fieldwork. What did these collaborations and negotiations reveal about bilingualism in Wales?
Elisabeth Barakos: Yes, so at the heart of Language Policy in Business is the premise that language is a focal point for articulating and living out power relationships and that language policy processes are never apolitical. Different voices articulate different claims over language. As to your question how my research has been received so far? I can’t speak for everyone but I hope that policy makers, businesses and scholars working on (minority) language policy have found value in the type of research that I do. To give you an example, the North Wales Economic Ambition Board has integrated my work on Welsh in the workplace into their Regional Skills & Employment Plan. My ongoing connections with the Welsh Language Commissioner’s office have also opened further doors to continuing research, which I really appreciate.
Further to your question about my own researcher positionality: well, yes, I have written this book and carried out this research, knowingly that I am not Welsh and Welsh-speaking; nor am I British. I am a multilingual with a vested interest in how minority communities negotiate discourses, ideologies and practices surrounding language. So, if you want, I took some kind of outsider perspective on what’s going on “inside the Welsh bubble” (as one of my research participants used to call it). At heart, I always made sure I revealed my background and motivations for doing this research, despite being a non-Welsh speaker, and my participants trusted me with their insights, concerns and worries and shared their experiences and practices.
With the book, I tried to tell a story about Welsh-speaking people’s experiences of their use of the language in the world of work. For what it’s worth, I can only offer one slice of this experience and reality, and my story is certainly not without its limitations.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: I really appreciated the multi-layered analysis of the promotion of bilingualism in post-devolution Wales. Based on your corpus of national and corporate policies, how has the concept of bilingualism evolved over time? Which different discourses construct “a truly bilingual Wales” and with what social consequences?
Elisabeth Barakos: Thanks for this question. So, the idea has been since the Welsh devolution in 1999, and probably much earlier, to plan for a truly bilingual Wales, premised on the notion of treating Welsh and English on the basis of equality and on offering a language choice. There is nothing wrong with this ambition. What I could observe though was that many policy discourses and people’s practices turned this principle of choice into a parallel monolingualism, or what Monica Heller has labelled double monolingualism, a homogeneous co-existence of two linguistic systems. Also, what I found was that ‘bilingual services’ and ‘choice’ were often mere policy rhetoric or used as part of corporate branding and PR, whilst the reality showed a consistent lack of active offer for Welsh services and lack of opportunities for its usage. So, say, if you go into a bank in Wales, you may have to actively demand a Welsh language service, that is, ask for a Welsh or bilingual form, rather than being offered it naturally, as you would in English. We can see this classic reproduction of the policy-practice gap here, with English still functioning as the default language.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: You close the book with a recent social media campaign to share the benefits of using Welsh in businesses within the broader Cymraeg 2050 strategy to reach 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050. What do you think the future holds for language policy in post-Brexit Wales? Which issues and questions remain open for future research about language policy in minority language contexts from a critical perspective?
Elisabeth Barakos: What I observe is that the notion of linguistic equality and parity of status between Welsh and English remains central. The government’s new strategy Cymraeg2050 is ambitious, if not ideologically vested with fixing speaker numbers, and again, commodifying language. Much work still needs to be done to carve out more spaces for the Welsh language to be recognized, valued and treated with the same respect as English on a daily basis. I am privileged to continue this strand of research as part of a new international project “L’égalité linguistique en temps de transformations politique / Linguistic equality in times of political transformation”, together with colleagues in Canada and Catalonia, Spain. We live in unsettling and troubling times. Brexit and the endemic Corona pandemic have brought new issues to light for Welsh language policy matters and re-shifted priorities for planning for a bilingual Wales. With Brexit, will the Welsh language further decline due to the loss of vital funding programs that used to create sustainable employment for Welsh speakers (such as in agriculture or tourism)? With the pandemic, how do Covid-19 related restrictions affect Welsh-speaking communities? In that sense, critical language scholars need to grapple with what these political, social and health crises will do to languages and their speakers, and what language policy processes can do to alleviate crisis moments and preserve the future of the Welsh language in a multilingual, post-pandemic and post-Brexit Wales.