Lingua franca’s impact upon approaches to conflict management

Title of the project: Lingua franca’s impact upon approaches to conflict management: a steadying hand?
Principal Investigators: David Warren, MA and Prof. (FH) Dr. Elisabeth Kübler
Duration of the project: August 2011 – August 2014
Contact: [email protected], [email protected]


Lauder Business School (LBS): an intercultural ELF environment
LBS is a highly international business school with approximately 300 students, 240 of whom are studying for the bachelors programs in International Business Administration and 60 of whom are studying for the master’s programs in International Management and Leadership and Banking Finance and Compliance. Students here come from over 40 different countries, especially Israel, Brazil and those countries within the former Soviet Union and Central and South East Europe.
At LBS, English is the Lingua Franca. All programs are taught in English, an advanced command of English is an admission requirement and, in addition, Business English (taught by a native speaker) is a compulsory course in the bachelor’s program.
The University is located in a fully German-speaking environment (Vienna) and its faculty and staff are predominantly Austrian with international experience. On the student side, LBS’s undergraduates and graduates often have a multilingual background and have no clear first language.

Research objective, theoretical framework, and study design
It has become a truism that globalized business relations require employees (particularly those in managerial positions) to communicate comprehensibly in English. The challenges involved have two aspects. Quite obviously, for people who have been brought up and educated in a language other than English spoken and written proficiency is a key prerequisite for a successful business career in an internationally acting firm or organization. However, in this international environment, both native and non-native users of English (Jenkins et al, 2011, p.283) also have to adapt to interlocutors who are less familiar with idiomatic language and the predominantly Anglo-American culture implicit in native speaker English.
Consequently, researchers have increasingly recognized the importance of English as a Lingua Franca in contemporary higher – and especially management – education (Erling 2007, Björkman 2010, Smit 2010). This does not necessarily mean abandoning teaching standard grammar and syntax, but allowing compromises as long as intelligibility is not affected. Furthermore, the ELF approach requires preparing students to effectively and convincingly express themselves in English medium across linguistic and cultural boundaries.
Literature suggests that the ELF challenges sketched out above become particularly salient in situations of conflict (Jensen 2009, Jenkins et al 2011, Planken 2005, Tanaka et al 2000). This paper, therefore, addresses the following two questions:
(a) How do students ‘talk conflict’ in a Lingua Franca environment when confronted with wrong but not life-threatening accusations?
(b) How, if at all, studying at an international business school – and operating in English – changes ways of dealing with conflict?
Upon receiving their informed consent, we confronted students from the first, third and fifth semesters of the bachelor program with five typical conflict situations. These included lack of active participation in class, lateness in submitting assignment(s), absence(s) from class, failure to adhere to LBS classroom behavior (e.g. using a mobile phone), and copying assignments from other students. All participants of the Business English classes on the beginner’s, intermediate and advanced levels were randomly allocated one situation written in ELF email style, and were asked to draft an anonymized response. This triggered students to discuss conflicts, their possible resolutions and the school’s norms of conflict management. Students thus showed the degree of their ability to deal with (mostly) unfounded accusations in a language other than their own.
We opted for an exploratory approach. Whereas this does not allow for either extrapolations or generalizations to larger populations, qualitative research provides deeper insights into the generated data (e.g. flexibility in handling aspects hitherto not covered by existing theory; sensitivity to contextual information, diverging meanings of expressions, and unexpected shifts within a text).
The data was further processed by means of a qualitative content analysis, for which a coding scheme was built based on Spencer Oatey’s (2000) model for managing rapport. This model among others embraces (i) the illocutionary domain (speech act strategies such as, for example, explicit requests and apologies), (ii) the discourse domain (content which covers the inclusion and exclusion of personal topics, for example the raising of sensitive topics can be rapport threatening), and (iii) the stylistic domain (which refers to tone including the extent of genre appropriate syntax and honorifics use as well as the suitable employment of aspects of tone such as sarcasm, appropriate vocabulary and use of the conditional).

Key findings
Looking at how students talk conflict, we can say that they do so with varying degrees of success. At one end of the scale, students deployed a relatively wide range of conflict management techniques such as expressing gratitude, apologizing, thanking, as well as utilizing stylistic tools to engage the reader, maintain and develop their relationship with the reader, and to mitigate the force of what they are saying. Amongst other students, however, such techniques were often entirely absent and very little attempt, if any, to manage conflict seems to have been made. Of course, it should be noted, the majority of student responses fell between these two extremes.
Crucially, as has been demonstrated, a student’s ability to talk conflict seemed to be closely tied to his or her overall linguistic ability. It must be again noted though that amongst our students, irrespective of linguistic ability, there was a preference to manage conflict through stylistic devices such as attitude and engagement markers rather than through ‘content’ such as the use of safe topics or inquiries after the well-being of the sender.
Given the limitations of the research (supervised classroom environment, one-shot design) it is harder to answer the question of how studying at an international business school – and operating in English – changes ways of dealing in conflict with absolute certainty. However, our results do enable us to tentatively conclude that operating in such an environment indeed does. The results for each of our three domains (illocutionary, discourse and stylistic) point to the fact the longer a student had been attending the school, and the longer he or she had been operating in English, the more ably he or she dealt with conflict.
In short, this project has demonstrated that (a) a student’s ability to manage conflict is closely related to his or her linguistic ability (b) operating in an English speaking environment – and studying English – presumably has a positive impact upon how a student talks conflict (c) nonetheless even an advanced ELF student’s depository of conflict management tools is not complete and ‘content’ devices from the illocutionary and discourse domains could very usefully be stressed by language instructors.

Dissemination of project outcomes
In April 2012 we presented our work at the CALPIU conference on “Higher education across borders: Transcultural interaction and linguistic diversity” at Roskilde University, Denmark.
In May 2014 we presented a revised paper at the Cross-Cultural Business Conference and at the 7th Austrian UAS Language Instructors’ Conference on “Integrating Language, Culture and Purpose in ESP” at FH Technikum Wien.

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