Workshop on Language and Occupations –  Amado Alarcón and Josep Ubalde

seminar-events1-1038x576Internationalization and informationalism are producing a major need for language-related work. In recent decades, several authors has stressed the importance of language in achieving greater levels of value creation and worker employability. Nevertheless, researchers and institutions face a lack of systematized and comparable information about the role of language in job performance. In this current scenario, the Workshop on Language and Occupations, held in Reus at the School of Business and Economics (URV) from 24 to 25 October 2016, allowed researchers a chance to exchange ideas and build knowledge on issues related to language and work. It was an initiative of researchers on the ILT project (CSO2015-64247-P), funded by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, in collaboration with the Department of Business and Management of the School of Business and Economics (Universitat Rovira i Virgili) and the Social and Organizational Analysis Research Group. The workshop involved the cooperation of almost twenty researchers from academic institutions in Spain, Catalonia, Germany, Switzerland and United States.

The main purpose of the workshop was to encourage scientific debate on the objective of the ILT project, which is to design and implement a measure of language intensity in the workplace by occupation. Specifically, the researchers of the project sought an interdisciplinary approach with which to exchange ideas on how to study language in organizational and productive contexts. These ideas were based on conceptual and theoretical frameworks, measurements, variables and analytical approaches and also on critical views and challenges. To this end, the workshop addressed three broad and interrelated issues: the effects of language on the labor market, the conceptualization and measurement of language-related work and the implementation of language-related work in specific settings and workplaces.

The workshop started with a presentation by Professor Florian Coulmas (IN-EAST Institute of East Asian Studies, University of Duisburg-Essen) entitled The Value of Standards and the Value of Languages: Some Critical Questions. He talked about the difficulties and challenges in studying language in occupations. He argued that the classical distinction between the uses of first or second languages is not sufficient to properly analyze this issue. Language and communication are implicitly involved in several occupations that apparently don’t require high-level language skills. For this reason, standard language tests are not adequate tools for assessing the language requirements necessary for doing a job. Linguistic autonomy, communicative competence, argmenting, etc., are some of the important dimensions to consider when labor is analyzed through language and not considered using standard tools. However, this suggestion is difficult to implement in research for two major reasons: on the one hand, accounting for these dimensions in several languages is very hard, and, on the other, the same challenge arises because of unique national or societal characteristics. This problem is especially significant when the aim is to measure language-related work in a quantitative way. At the end of his presentation, Coulmas also listed a number of variables that are closely related to the processes involving language and work in occupations. Among others, we should bear in mind gender, race, social class and ideology.

Following the keynote presentation, four brief presentations were given, under the topic “Language and the Labor Market”. The first was delivered by Michele Gazzola (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin). Entitled Foreign Language Skills and Employability in Germany and Italy, his presentation discussed the effects of language skills on employability. He said this issue is very relevant, given the current framework of the European Union. The European Council has encouraged the accommodation of language diversity in companies due to the alleged need for multilingualism in international markets. Nonetheless, Gazzola said that major empirical effort is required to demonstrate the relevance of language skills for workers. In particular, he noticed a lack of research on the effects of language skills on employability. Using data from a Eurostat survey on language skills focusing on two multilingual European countries (Switzerland and Italy), he illustrated the estimated probability of being unemployed as a function of one’s foreign language skills in the most commonly spoken languages (English and French). The results show that English reduces the risk of being unemployed (taking into account other relevant job market characteristics), but other languages aside from English have a significant impact, according to the Swiss data.

The next presentation was “Language as a Catalyst for Education: Immigrant Employment in Spain,” by María Miyar (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia). She also analyzed employability as an outcome of language skills, but she focused on immigrants in Spain. She argued that it is very important to understand the effects of competence in the language of the host country on employment status, given the potential benefits such competence holds for integration. Using the Labor Force Survey special module on the situation of immigrants in the labor market (INE 2015), she observed that language skills had a direct positive effect and also an indirect effect on employment. Indirect effects are explained under the hypothesis of transferability, that is, language enables immigrants to apply the skills acquired in their place of origin when they work in qualified jobs. Thus, this presentation highlighted the role played by language in different occupations, acting as a “catalyst for education” in qualified jobs.

Till Burckhardt (Université de Genève) presented “Language Disenfranchisement of the Labor Market”. He proposed a conceptual framework for the evaluation of language policy. Specifically, he proposed measuring the proportion of the population without access to the labor market due to language-related reasons. In this sense, he suggested extending the notion of language disenfranchisement borrowed form Ginsburgh and Weber and combining it with the notion of language intensity in order to account not only for language diversity, but also for language level or quality. Within this framework, using the two main elements of diversity and quality, he differentiated between the skills of the workforce and occupational requirements. This differentiation may make it possible to analyze and measure language disenfranchisement in the labor market.

Amado Alarcón (Universitat Rovira i Virgili) gave the last presentation, entitled “Language Intensity in Occupational Classifications.”  Alarcón argued that language has become central in informational society because information and knowledge are both linguistically codified. In this context, the notion of linguistic intensity, which he defined as “the component required for the production and commercialization of products that determines the linguistic costs of internal and external transactions,” becomes very significant. Specifically, it can be understood through three elements: the number of languages (intensity by diversity), the need for language/s (intensity by extension), and excellence in use (intensity by quality). Combining Robert Reich’s conceptualization of the “symbolic analyst” with the concept of language intensity, Alarcón made a classification of occupations for the study of language in the workplace. He reported the results of two studies carried out using data from the ACS-PUM on the U.S. border with Mexico, where the aforementioned classification applies. He showed how in this area, Spanish-English bilinguals have an advantage over Spanish monolinguals, both in occupational position and earnings (controlling for several sociodemographic variables). However, he also found “ceilings” for bilinguals in terms of their ability to access symbolically higher occupations with higher wages. This situation may be related to discriminatory processes directed at native Spanish-speakers.

The day finished with a discussion on the main issues related to the project, in view of the different results found by the speakers regarding the effects of language skills on the labor market. The debate emphasized the importance of considering the role of occupations with an intense use of symbols and higher education requirements. In such occupations, language probably intervenes in a different manner. This is a question that should be thoroughly analyzed.  Nonetheless, researchers also stressed the importance of contextual factors, such as country idiosyncrasies or public policy, and variables, such as race or ideology, for the acquisition of a deep understanding of the role of language in the new informational society.

The next day started with a presentation of Anthony Pym (Intercultural Studies Group, Universitat Rovira i Virgili): “On the Time Factor in Mediation Metrics and Language Policy”. He focused on the translation and interpreting profession to emphasize the importance of time in occupations where high-level language skills are required. Over time, most translated information flows between languages are remarkably irregular. The instability of flows indicates why the mediation professions tend to be precarious, highly flexible and outsourced. To confront the many problems thus raised, public policy should focus on the many non-national languages for which services are required, and on very short-term training for potential mediators who speak these languages. On the other hand, if public policy remains focused on large, national languages only, the symbolic mutual recognition thus achieved risks being undermined by a serious lack of social inclusion.

After this keynote presentation, three brief presentations were given. They provided three different approaches to the diverse nature of language work. The first, entitled “What is Linguistic Work?” was delivered by Josep Ubalde (Universitat Rovira i Virgili). He identified a lack of academic literature focusing on how to define and operationalize the notion of language-related work. Based on a review, he defines language-related work as a “set of language skills, knowledge and activities implied in job performance.” He measured this set through a list of variables taken from the O*NET database and showed that the three-dimensional language intensity construct coined by Alarcón accounts for almost 80% of the total variability in skills, knowledge and activities across occupations. Thus, it may be proposed as a system of indicators for the complex measurement of language-related work. He said that this is a first step for an understanding of how language may be a factor of competitiveness in informational societies.

Nune Ayvazyan (Intercultural Studies Group, Universitat Rovira i Virgili) gave the next presentation, “Language Demands and Job Profiles in the Russian-speaking Community of Tarragona-Salou: the Need for a Long-term Perspective.” She presented a case study focused on the Russian-speaking community in Tarragona-Salou to show the potential languages have for creating employment and wealth in the long term. This community is formed by a fairly recent group of immigrants, most with long-term outlooks. The development of the community has created language-based jobs in a few sectors: real estate, private medical services, translation/interpreting, tourism-related sales, etc. The asset of this community lies in its potential to provide language mediation and related services for long-term relations with the wider Russian-speaking world, which should become a major factor for tourism and commerce in the region. She observes, however, that if care is not taken to ensure that the younger generation continues to value the Russian language, that potential may be lost.

The last paper in that segment, “Labor Process and Language,” was delivered by Amado Alarcón.  He showed the ways in which language criteria for job performance have become central when defining job categories and wages in the call center sector in Spain. Language occupies a central role in the call center industry: language functions as the raw material, scripts are the tools, and conversations are the product. However, Alarcón points out, the way in which language production affects employment conditions has received little attention. Based on in-depth interviews and the analysis of scripts and collective agreements, he showed that trade unions and workers are pushing to adapt job-autonomy based Fordist arguments to informational production, arguing that job categories may depend on having the linguistic ability to depart from prepared scripts at the workplace.

The lead speaker in the next section, “Emphasis on Occupational Struggles and the Labor Process,” was David Block, with his catchy title presentation, “What would Karl say? Language Economics, the Marxist Gaze and 21st Century Subjectivities.”  His starting point was the idea that mainstream language economics has a limited point of view about language in the complex production relationship system. It neglects some important aspects that make this research non-critical and superficial. In contrast, Block provided a panoramic view of the political economy from the Marxist perspective. He reviewed fundamental concepts like alienation, exploitation, social class and neoliberalism, and also relevant contributions of authors such as Fraser, Bourdieu, Boltanski and Chiapello. This overview highlighted the importance of taking into account Marxist views for a deeper understanding of language economics, without overlooking the humanism that characterizes Block’s work.

Following this talk, Esther Torres-Simon (Intercultural Studies Group, Universitat Rovira i Virgili) presented, “Why are there jobs with high language requirements, low pay, and a high degree of precariousness?” She said that jobs requiring a high level of language skills in foreign languages are underpaid. This statement is based on an analysis of a sample of advertised salaries associated with jobs that require near native competence in a foreign language. Considering the long-term investment necessary to attain these skills and the low pay in comparison to other occupations with equally demanding qualifications, she asserted that language-related work is poorly compensated.

Cristina Morales (University of Texas) presented “The Implications of Economic Restructuring on Linguistic Human Capital Returns: A Case Study of the Residential Construction Industry in Sin City.” In her talk, she addressed the question of the role played by language in the informal labor sector. This question is very relevant to the current economic restructuring process that has resulted in an increase of informal labor. Such is the case of the construction industry in the U.S. Based on in-depth interviews with approximately one hundred immigrant construction workers, she examined linguistic human capital returns. While English language skills are not necessary to perform construction jobs, when working in the informal sector, having the language skills to negotiate work and wages is essential. Consequently, employers seek to build an exploitable workforce through the hiring of indigenous workers who do not speak English.

Antonio Di Paolo (AQR-IREA, Universitat de Barcelona) gave the final presentation, entitled “The Return of a Knowledge of English to the Catalan Labor Market.” Using data from the Catalan Survey on the Living Conditions and Habits of the Population, he showed the clear impact of a knowledge of English on the labor market. He estimated a 6.2-6.5% increase in wages for individuals able to speak and write English. This is a robust result when controlling for other skills and sociodemographic variables. However, when the type of occupation is taken into account, this coefficient is notably reduced (although it remains significant). In addition, when the sample was divided between individuals with higher and lower levels of education, Di Paolo observed that the increased returns prevailed only among the former. He argued that in view of the importance of a knowledge of English in the labor market, major efforts should be made to enhance these skills among the population.

Di Paolo’s paper concluded the round of presentations and a discussion period ensued. The speakers compared the different methodological approaches used in their analyses to understand the differences and similarities in their results. Much attention was paid, however, to the significance of the type of occupation in question and the important finding that only highly educated people can take advantage of language skills.

The workshop was successful in bring together different analyses on language and occupations. According to the project calendar, the participants have agreed to organize a second meeting in November, 2017, in Tarragona and to work to organize a monograph on the topic.

Amado Alarcón and Josep Ubalde
Universitat Rovira i Virgili

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