Spotlight on BELF: English as a Business Lingua Franca

The Helsinki School of Economics became part of Aalto University in 2010. Anne Kankaanranta and Leena Louhiala-Salminen are part of the Department of Communication in Aalto's School of Business.

The Helsinki School of Economics became part of Aalto University in 2010. Anne Kankaanranta and Leena Louhiala-Salminen are part of the Department of Communication in Aalto’s School of Business.

The fall season of ELF seminars held by Anna Mauranen got started last Thursday with a visit from two of the trailblazers in the research of BELF – English as a business lingua franca. Anne Kankaanranta and Leena Louhiala-Salminen of the Aalto University School of Business introduced their approach to BELF in a 2005 paper on two mergers between large Finnish and Swedish companies, where English was adopted as the internal lingua franca. Since then they’ve continued developing BELF research, and this summer they reported on their latest work at the Changing English conference in Helsinki and the ELF6 conference in Rome.

Anne and Leena were the guest speakers at Thursday’s seminar, and they gave a wide-ranging overview of their work up to the present. It was interesting to get this “diachronic” view of their research and to hear how their perspectives on BELF have developed over the years. But even more broadly, it was a good reminder of how the field of ELF research is as new as the globalising trends that have developed around it. Anne and Leena told of their early careers as business communication instructors in the late 1980s, when the focus was on where to place the prescribed elements of a business letter. Today, “business English” means something altogether different, with global implications.

Global Communicative Competence: more than the message

One of the areas investigated by Kankaanranta and Louhiala-Salminen in connection with BELF is Global Communicative Competence (GCC). Their earlier research has used survey and interview data to develop a profile of success factors in BELF communication. We had interesting discussion around these findings, which suggest that “getting the facts/content right” is the most important factor, followed by “getting the politeness right” and “getting the structure/text right”. This interplay between giving the facts and building rapport came out in a quote from one of the Finnish informants: “First you say something nice, then you give the facts, and then you close by saying something nice again”.

This was a good illustration of how communicative competence is more than just “getting the message across”. Also in their 2005 study on Finnish-Swedish mergers, Kankaanranta and Louhiala-Salminen discussed differing expectations between Finns and Swedes on how much relational talk should accompany the facts of the message. This interactive data shows instances where Swedish employees try to solicit more substantial confirmations of understanding from their Finnish colleagues, who in these cases were satisfied with a minimal signal such as “yes”. Our discussion raised the issue of listening skills and the importance of offering comprehension signals that confirm the speaker’s message and support the relation-building that’s inherent in interaction.

Unpacking English as “corporate language”

October in Finland, the calm before the storm.© Nina Valtavirta

October in Finland, the calm before the storm.
© Nina Valtavirta

Another interesting discussion came out of Anne and Leena’s latest work on problematising the concept of “corporate language”, particularly from an ELF perspective. As a linguist, it was surprising to learn that business research in fields such as International Management (IM) tend to treat the issue of corporate language as a “black box” – objectifying it without looking inside to examine the language itself. Thus, linguistic data rarely enters into the discussion, and one of the strengths of BELF research is the willingness to engage with actual language use. It’s not enough to talk about corporate language while ignoring who is using it and for what purposes.

One of the findings coming out of this latest BELF research is a distinction between BELF used as an internal working language and “official” or “standard” English as the external, public, and “macro-level” corporate communication, including websites and press releases. BELF, on the other hand, can be seen as the micro-level vehicle of interpersonal communication that is typically private, in forms such as emails and meetings. This was also reported at the ELF6 conference, and I wondered if anyone would take issue with this observation that Standard English and ELF can be seen to coexist in globalised settings.

While some ELF researchers might be seen to present ELF as pitted against a Standard English adversary, it seems sensible to me that norms of acceptability and correctness will be established in context, depending on the mode and purpose of communication. This seems to be what Niina Hynninen’s PhD research on ELF in academic settings also suggests – locally negotiated norms of acceptability can vary based on how and why English is being used. The norms of ELF interaction between peers and colleagues will likely be different from those applied to more public, high-stakes settings such as an “official” presentation, whether in business or academia.

Our coming fall schedule in Helsinki

The first seminar of fall left us with plenty of food for thought, and we also finalised our schedule for the remaining meetings of the year. Four more seminars will be held on the following Thursdays at 16.00:

  • 24.10 – presentation by Jani Ahtiainen on his just-finished MA thesis, which investigates terms of address in the ELFA and MICASE corpora
  • 31.10 – guest presentation by Anni Sairio of the VARIENG research group from right here in Helsinki, a world-class center for historical linguistics of English
  • 21.11 – presentation by Hanna-Mari Pienimäki on her just-finished MA thesis, which investigates the experiences of English learners in Finland
  • 12.12 – presentation by me about my ongoing PhD work of applying Linear Unit Grammar (LUG) to transcriptions of academic talk, how I’ve partially automated this process, and the chunk patterns emerging from a fully LUG-parsed corpus

Students in Helsinki who wish to attend should send an email to ray.carey<at> to confirm the date and for more information on the meeting place. Scholars from BA to post-doc are welcome!

References (with thanks to our guest speakers!)

Kankaanranta, A. & Louhiala-Salminen, L. (2010) “English? – Oh, it’s just work!”: A study of BELF users’ perceptions. English for Specific Purposes, 29, 204-209. DOI: 10.1016/j.esp.2009.06.004

Louhiala-Salminen, L., Charles, M. & Kankaanranta, A. (2005) English as a lingua franca in Nordic corporate mergers: Two case companies. English for Specific Purposes (Special issue: English as a lingua franca in international business contexts), C. Nickerson (ed.), 24(4), 401-421. DOI: 10.1016/j.esp.2005.02.003

Louhiala-Salminen, L. & Kankaanranta, A. (2011) Professional Communication in a Global Business Context: The Notion of Global Communicative Competence. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication (Special issue on Professional Communication in Global Contexts), 54(3), 244-262. DOI: 10.1109/TPC.2011.2161844

Kankaanranta, A. & Louhiala-Salminen, L. (2013) Focus on ‘language’ and ‘culture’ in strategic business communication. Presentation at the Sixth International Conference of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF6), Roma Tre University, Rome, 4-7 September 2013.


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