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Language Uses in Professional Contexts

Abstract and Keywords

The use of language in professional context is the essence of this article. Scholars in several disciplines have studied the language used in professional contexts for many different reasons, so this topic represents an unusually interdisciplinary panorama. This article reviews some current work comprising the study of language in professional contexts with the dual goals of illustrating representative approaches taken to date and suggesting where additional efforts by applied linguists could be most productive. Social scientists have examined the language used in traditional high-status professions of law and medicine and similarly status-sensitive fields of education and social work for decades; consequently, applied linguists find a substantial foundation for related work. Research on language uses in professional activities belongs in the mainstream of contemporary applied linguistics. Without it, theorists are likely to oversimplify the contradictions connecting the study of language and society.

Keywords: language use, interdisciplinary, study of language, applied linguistics, language, society

1. Introduction

Scholars in several disciplines have studied the language used in professional contexts for many different reasons, so this topic represents an unusually interdisciplinary panorama. Here I review some current work comprising the study of language in professional contexts with the dual goals of illustrating representative approaches taken to date and suggesting where additional efforts by applied linguists could be most productive. The discussion concentrates on areas not discussed elsewhere in this handbook. Hence, I will not comment in depth on language use in schools, on the implications of research on workplace language for societal multilingualism, on language policy and planning, on translation and interpretation (all specifically addressed elsewhere in this volume), or on language use in religion. These disclaimers reveal the extreme multidisciplinarity of academic attention to language employed in professional settings; it implicates many possible avenues of scholarship related to applied linguistics (see, e.g., Gunnarsson, Linell, and Nordberg, 1997) and thus typifies the richness of the field.

The study of language in professional contexts overlaps an area more widely recognized within applied linguistics, namely, language for specific purposes (LSP—or English for specific purposes, ESP), a subfield recognized since at least 1964 (see Halliday, McIntosh, and Strevens, 1964, cited in Swales, 2000). As Swales notes, early LSP work relied on two straightforward assumptions:

(p. 319)

  1. 1. Descriptive structural analysis of language used in work settings would provide an adequate basis for the development of teaching materials.

  2. 2. Those engaged in teaching languages (most often, but not always, English) for defined groups of adult learners would be capable of conducting at least basic required descriptive research on which design of teaching materials would be based.

From the start, LSP has had a strongly pedagogical impetus.

The pedagogical motivation remains strong, and more recent LSP work has drawn on the growing awareness of the multiple text types and changing definitions of genre relevant to any disciplinary field (Belcher, 2006; Bhatia, 2000) and the wider range of research methodologies in applied linguistics that have come into greater prominence in the last 20 years. As illustrated in one field, chemistry, these include, among others, corpus linguistics (see, for example, Robinson and Stoller's 2008 textbook for novice writers in chemistry, developed on the basis of extensive analysis of four typical genres in chemistry, research articles, conference abstracts, scientific poster presentations, and research proposals) and the more widespread use of qualitative methods such as longitudinal case studies (Li, 2007).

Concurrent with LSP's establishment as a recognized focus within applied linguistics over the last 5 decades, investigators in other disciplines looked to the study of language used in specific professional or occupational settings as data germane to a gamut of theoretical and empirical questions ranging from issues of occupational socialization to the expression and constitution of social relationships. The social relationships highlighted in such research were usually those illustrating particular identities crucial to the occupational settings at hand: experts versus nonexperts, doctors versus patients, judges versus attorneys versus clients, teachers versus students, and supervisors versus workers. Various projects have, at times, included consideration of other demographic categories such as men versus women, native speakers versus nonnative speakers, and native residents versus immigrants to a country, all of which coexist with standard occupational hierarchies. Individuals can be part of many of these categories, with the relevance of each aspect of identity determined according to past history and present communicative situation (see Toohey and Norton elsewhere in this volume). The methodology used in these investigations has generally been that of discourse or conversation analysis (see Johnstone, 2000). In the last 20 years, propelled by more explicit theorizing of concerns related to gender (Kendall and Tannen, 1997; Leidner, 1993; Wodak, 1997) and political power (Benhabib, 1997, 1999) that have marked all social sciences, academic discussion of workplace language has produced more differentiated and often more subtle renderings and interpretations of the language used in various occupational settings. Thus, a survey of language uses in professional contexts must include more and less than LSP: more in that one of its goals is to illuminate not only language but also aspects of social structure; less in that it does not aim, necessarily, to serve as the basis for pedagogical methods and materials.

Because research in this area has generally been motivated by an interest in social relations, much of the foundational research on language uses in professional (p. 320) contexts has been done by social scientists in sociology, anthropology, or political science. Given these distinct disciplinary foci and research methods, there is considerable variation in the type and amount of language data gathered and the nature, systematicity, and level of detail and sophistication of the linguistic analysis applied. Schegloff has remarked on the need to balance the focus on social structure with a focus on conversational interaction in conversation analytic approaches, noting that “each makes its own claims in organizing observation and analysis of the data, and one can preempt the other” (1991: 57). Moreover, research done since the 1980s has emphasized the interconnectedness of oral and written language in any workplace setting (see, e.g., Spilka, 1993), presaging the interests in intertextuality and historicity now prevalent in critical theoretical discussions in many fields. Additionally, Bhatia 2008), a major scholar in analysis of professional communication, notes the importance of “interdiscursivity”—that is, of grounding investigation of disciplinary discourses in a more fully explicated vision of professional practices—so that investigators can produce findings that integrate analysis of discourse into the lived world of professional activity. Hence, there is considerable opportunity for applied linguists to supplement the research previously summarized either for the specific aim of developing pedagogical tasks and materials, the usual mandate of LSP, or for the more general goal of expanding knowledge of the relation between language use and social setting—the lodestar of contemporary sociolinguistics.

II. Language Uses in Traditional Status-Differentiated Professions

Social scientists have examined the language used in traditional high-status professions of law and medicine and similarly status-sensitive fields of education and social work for decades; consequently, applied linguists find a substantial foundation for related work. More recent trends in these fields incorporate theory and scholarship related to expression and realization of gender and ethnicity and aspects of technological change as all these interact with occupational and institutional authority.


Law is the professional arena in which the study of language has been preeminent, both because the practice of law is driven by verbal and textual exchange (scholars have asserted that “language is legal power”; Conley and O'Barr, 1998: 14) and because, for centuries, legal proceedings have been described and recorded, sometimes verbatim, yielding an enormous amount of publicly accessible material for (p. 321) analysis. Researchers based in applied linguistics (e.g., Schane, 2006; Shuy, 1996, 1998, 2008) have complemented the study of legal records with many of the tools of contemporary social scientific and applied linguistic analysis such as ethnographic interviews and detailed discourse analysis of court transcripts.

Contemporary research on actual language use in legal settings reflects concern for both the expressive and constitutive role of language in pertinent relationships.1 Recent work also demonstrates awareness that legal language, a register complex enough to challenge the abilities of native speakers, must often be used as a regular part of job duties by nonlawyers (as when police officers inform suspects of their Miranda rights) and that such uses of language can pose additional problems for second language speakers, even those deemed highly skilled in everyday conversational interaction, as Pavlenko's 2008a) comprehensive case study of a university student, a native speaker of Russian indicted in the United States on a murder charge, demonstrates. Applied linguists have also turned their analytical lenses onto the issue of distinguishing truth from deception in testimony (Shuy, 1998; Singleton, 2000). Furthermore, many contemporary studies of legal language address not simply a two party (i.e., attorney-client) interaction, but language used in the courtroom, a highly ritualized setting in which at least three different status positions—judge, attorney, and members of the public (sometimes considered separately as members of a jury versus lay litigants, plaintiffs, or defendants versus onlookers)—affect the nature of communication. Often when the profiles of relevant interlocutors include differences in gender or cultural or ethnic group membership as well as role in legal interactions, such dual identities are foregrounded in the study of legal discourse (e.g., Eades, 1994, 2003; Walsh, 1994).

Whereas early studies of language uses in legal settings sought generally to characterize the role-related discourse used by various parties, more contemporary work (e.g., Conley and O'Barr, 1990, 1998; O'Barr and Conley, 1996) seeks to determine the development of, and differences among, the evolution of legal meanings for laypeople involved in legal proceedings compared to legal meanings for legal professionals. An extension of such work is the explication of legal language as the expression of a particular ideology, with judges, in their roles of substantive legal authorities and arbiters of courtroom procedure, as its principal exponents (Harris, 1994; Solan, 1993). Philips 1998) examines the interplay among three different ideological frameworks—due process, state policy, and courtroom control—manifested in the discourse of judges, and shows that the connections perceived by the judges across the three areas are usually invisible to outsiders, rendering judicial conduct at worst unpredictable and at least mysterious. Her work, that of O'Barr and Conley (1996) on the contrasting understandings of individuals in small claims courts, and that of Matoesian 1999) on the development of expert witness identity through court testimony exemplify the trend toward documenting the multivalent nature of discourse in multiparty legal settings. Many studies of courtroom language demonstrate the existence of conventionalized discourse roles during parts of a trial; some also show that certain participants can affect typical question-answer sequences by challenging the linguistic constraints implicit in attorneys' queries (e.g., Erlich and Sidnell, 2006).

(p. 322) Another important development in the study of language use in legal settings is the attention to effects of new technologies for communication and analysis within the legal system, in, for example, the use of videotaped depositions (Pearson and Berch, 1994), voice recognition technology (Jones, 1994; Nolan, 1994), and use of computerized linguistic analysis to establish or disprove authorship of a text (Eagleson, 1994; Grieve, 2007; W. Smith, 1994). These uses, and the situational and topical issues to which they would apply, are particularly germane to the subfield known as forensic linguistics (Coulthard and Johnson, 2007; Olsson, 2008; Shuy, 1996, 2002, 2008). The development of increasingly sophisticated technologies for language recording and analysis and concomitant application of the ever more powerful (in the statistical sense) analytical approaches stimulated, in part, by advances in corpus linguistics (see Burstein and Chodorow, chapter 36 in this volume) have enabled many parties to the legal system, notably attorneys and sometimes other law enforcement agencies, to employ various methods of text mining in analyzing large bodies of linguistic evidence such as transcripts of electronic communication exchanges that last for months or years or transcripts of telephone conversations. It should be noted that not all of these genres are open to public inspection, as are courtroom proceedings; hence, some of these bodies of data qualify as what Swales (1996) calls “occluded genres,” or communicative exchanges hidden from some or all individuals for reasons of law, custom, convenience, or efficiency (see Schweda Nicholson, chapter 34 in this volume). Hence, although research on many linguistic aspects of language in legal settings can be productively conducted by applied linguists with appropriate expertise, results of such research might not appear in traditional academic venues immediately or at all. Nonetheless, there is tremendous potential for applied linguistic research in all these areas.


Interest in more- and less-authoritative social roles enacted through the discourse between health professionals and lay patients parallels work on legal discourse in many ways. However, the context of most medical interactions, unlike much interaction in legal settings, does not regularly include public discourse. Many crucial interactions take place between doctors and patients or across several different parties (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, nurses' aides, housekeepers, patients, relatives of patients, and, in some multilingual settings, interpreters; see Angelelli, 2004a; Schweda Nicholson, chapter 34 in this volume) and, unlike court proceedings, are not routinely recorded verbatim, although conventions of clinical practice often include generation of and reliance on practitioners' dictated or written notes about patient care. Compared to law, then, the nature and amount of data from medical settings available for analysis has been somewhat more limited. Also, scholars from several disciplines have engaged in the study of medical discourse, but with diverse motivations, goals, methods, and access to data; there (p. 323) is as yet no universally accepted mode of analyzing clinical discourse (Candlin and Candlin, 2003; Frankel, 2000, 2001b). Early work (see, e.g., Fisher and Todd, 1983; Mishler, 1984) documented the ways physicians managed communication with patients to provide technical information in what they believed to be understandable language, direct the interactions efficiently, and minimize emotional responses. Related research (Engeström, 1993) used the discourse of medical consultations to explore whether reorganization of government-funded medical care had any impact on physicians' communication styles or typical modes of activity. Contemporaneous discussion of these topics (Todd and Fisher, 1993) adds documentation of various realizations of power and resistance through specific discoursal strategies used by providers and patients. The research on medical encounters between oncology and nononcology patients analyzed by Ainsworth-Vaughn 1998) offers detailed examples of types of questions, storytelling forms, and humor used to frame and propel interactions. Tensions related to the material conditions of medical practice, particularly the limited time physicians may have with patients, are foregrounded in Stivers's 2007) account of the language surrounding physicians' prescribing practices. Drawing on the fine-grained approach of conversation analysis, Heritage and Maynard 2006) and their contributors illustrate some of the typical exchange patterns prevalent in primary care settings. They, and Frankel (2001a), raise intriguing questions regarding the discursive tensions between provider- and patient-centered talk, the latter sometimes recommended as part of the movement toward patient-centered care. In an intriguing parallel development within applied linguistics, researchers (e.g., Sarangi, 2001) have called for research that documents and explores patients' linguistic behavior and interpretive frameworks in greater detail rather than concentrating principally (and sometimes inadvertently) on the providers' perspective; Martinez's 2008) study of healthcare interactions on the U.S.-Mexican border reflects this mandate.

The role of language in the occupational socialization of doctors has attracted analytic attention from several social scientists and medical educators.2 Current work has examined the functions of language used by experts to induct novices into the profession. During formal medical education, senior physicians' knowledge of the content of the lectures and lab sessions that medical students would have completed up to a certain point would determine whether they referred to patients' problems in more or less technical terms (Cicourel, 1992), documenting developmental constraints on discourse. Becoming a member of any profession, not only medicine, requires novices not only to know technical terms but also to be able to reproduce the decision processes that lead to designation as a competent member of the profession. Discourse analytic methods have been used to track the socialization of medical students and to explore the effectiveness of less teacher-dominated, more discussion-oriented, modes of medical training, the topic of a special issue of Discourse Processes in which several scholars analyze a segment of videotaped discussion of a clinical case by medical students and their faculty tutor (Koschmann, 1999). Frankel (2000), a veteran researcher of the interactional (p. 324) aspects of medical language, shows that medical students have not been consistently trained in presenting bad news or using empathic techniques during patient interaction, although their use increases patient satisfaction and compliance with therapeutic recommendations.

Feminist theory and scholarship have increased attention to the relationships between gender and communication in medical practice. Because women use medical care more than men do, both for themselves and as caregivers for other family members, communication between women patients or parents and male healthcare providers has frequently been investigated (e.g., Maynard, 1992; Tannen and Wallat, 1993; Todd, 1993). In the United States, most physicians have been male and many other health providers, such as nurses, female, although proportions are changing; thus the dynamics of workplace communication between providers in different occupational categories has inspired research highlighting some gender-related comparisons. Fisher's (1995) exploration of the differences in social psychological dimensions of health care received from doctors versus nurse practitioners is one such example. The relevance of gender distinctions to medical research, as well as direct medical care, is a topic of some complexity; Epstein's 2007) thorough consideration of such concerns suggests that the existence and extent of gender-linked differences should be neither assumed nor ignored, but require empirical and experiential verification. The same is certainly true of sociolinguistic dimensions of medical communication.

The study of language in language-intensive branches of medicine and such allied fields as psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy has been a favorite site of investigations that have used mainly discourse analytic methods, and there is growing interest in efforts to determine whether any aspect of language use can be meaningfully linked with health status (Wilce, 2003). Pennebaker (2003) has developed a computer program to examine connections between degree and type of self-disclosure in college students' written reflections and health outcomes; using a similar technique, other investigators have found that such effects varied by ethnic group (Booth and Davison, 2003). Although it would be misleading to pose a dichotomy between these specialties and other branches of medicine, the latter areas often rely relatively more heavily on procedures such as physical examinations, lab tests, and visual representations (x-rays, sonograms, other forms of physical imaging) as routine components of professional research and clinical practice.3 Labov and Fanshel's (1977) work showed that conversational analysis methods could be productively applied to psychotherapy, a line of inquiry reaching back to the 1950s that continues to be active (Ferrara, 1994; Frankel, 2000; Morris and Chenail, 1995).

The impact of new technologies on the nature and frequency of medical communication between patients and caregivers and among various groups of healthcare providers represents another central area for theorizing and research. Multiple types of computerized equipment are now commonplace in many hospitals and medical offices, requiring that physicians, nurses, and other providers learn to manage communication with and through such devices in addition to the older (p. 325) channels of handwritten notes or telephone conversations. These technological changes interact with considerations of typical gender roles in emerging occupational identities within health care (Cook-Gumperz and Hanna, 1997). More widespread use of electronic medical records raises several crucial language-related issues such as the possible intrusiveness of computers during physician-patient interactions (Frankel, 2000) and the need for accurate ways to search for information (Currie, Cohan, and Zlatic, 2000), which is of central import because some of the potential value of such records depends on efficient searchability (Lohr, 2008). Although electronic medical records are, like some types of records of legal interactions, to some degree “occluded” genres, they nonetheless raise several issues readily susceptible to applied linguistic research.


Whether education and social work qualify as high-status professions has long been debated (Etzioni, 1969; Freidson, 1973), but both the strong institutional structures and the status differential between teachers and students or social service providers and clients suggest that they merit inclusion in a general overview of language uses in professional settings. I mention education only briefly here because other chapters in this volume provide more detail, on, for example, the study of classroom discourse (see contributions by Poole and Samraj, chapter 9 in this volume; Lantolf, chapter 11 in this volume; and Gass, chapter 15 in this volume). Investigators have used the conversation analytic approaches employed in the legal and medical arenas to examine processes of student classification and advising in special education placement conferences (Mehan, 1986) and in language proficiency interviews (Young and He, 1998). Such work illuminates the gatekeeping function of language use in educational institutions.

Social Services

The nature and types of social services available in different national contexts and the types of bureaucracies established to deliver them are highly context-specific. However, wherever services exist, determinations of eligibility and benefits must be made, often through the mechanism of individual interviews; hence, the relevance of language as gatekeeper in this sphere as well (McGroarty, 1996). As in all professional uses of language addressed here, the problematics of status-differentiated interviews increase when populations to be served differ in native language and communicative orientation from service providers. Britain's Industrial Language Training Project, established to address conflicts around the nature of communication in workplaces and in provision of social services, represented a wide-ranging and influential research program in this area; it was one of the first efforts drawing on large-observations and discourse samples to suggest that related language training be developed not only for minority language background workers but also for those (p. 326) who interacted with them (Jupp, Roberts, and Cook-Gumperz, 1982; Roberts, Davies, and Jupp, 1992). Some similar methods have been used to document the second language acquisition of “guest workers” in their interactions with social service providers or employers in several European countries (Bremer et al., 1996).

III. Language Uses in other Professional Arenas

The discourse analytic methods applied to interactions in high-status professions have also been employed in other occupational settings in which hierarchical role differentiation, though still present, is less marked. From a research perspective, it is particularly provocative to examine language use in organizations aspiring to the “transformative,” or “best-practices” ethos touted by many commentators; in such settings, language becomes one of the principal modes of instrumental activity between presumably coequal participants (Deetz, 1995). Related studies have documented how workers engaged in verbal interaction mediated through speech, print, or both seek to influence each other during transactions such as fixing a machine, arranging schedules, negotiating future business arrangements, or making purchases. Given trends toward flattening hierarchies in many workplaces and developing less adversarial attitudes toward customers, understanding the complexities of workplace language use in such settings is even more crucial than it might be in status-differentiated settings, for participants' effectiveness may depend less on hierarchical authority and more on communicative abilities (Deetz, 1995). Indeed, much postmodernist scholarship on language use in the workplace forges explicit connections between language use and the kind of individual identity promoted by employers, especially large corporations. In an ironic extension of Goffman's (1959, 1961) theories of self-presentation in the context of total institutions, the total institutions of note in contemporary scholarship on workplace language use are not those to which individuals are consigned because of deviance or disease, but rather those with which interlocutors freely seek affiliation because of economic and emotional rewards. However, dramatic changes in economic conditions and their impact on employment in many sectors have also influenced workplace language use of and by individuals and organizations (Kunda and Van Maanen, 1999).


Studies of the nature of work in manufacturing settings offer insights into language as one form of activity that represents and contributes to accomplishment of corporate goals and, at the same time, contradicts some commonsense notions about the skills and language abilities needed to be a competent worker. Ethnographic (p. 327) work at a successful U.S. wire manufacturing plant has shown that rhetoric about the need for a highly skilled workforce (Hull, 1997) misrepresents the idiosyncratic but efficacious approaches to production job performance, including various combinations of using talk and referring to written job procedures and specifications and the possibility of decontextualizing supposedly prerequisite skills from contexts of use (Darrah, 1990, 1997). In another U.S. manufacturing plant, growing emphasis on an incentive system based on pay for knowledge and teamwork led to some new literacy demands, but workers did not always see these as useful, nor did they value the company's concomitant requirement to learn about additional jobs or offers of related training (Hart-Landsberg and Reder, 1997). Both studies suggest that effective language use is embedded in additional understandings of the physical requirements and social relationships governing production work and cannot be defined in the abstract.

In many English-speaking countries, changes in the manufacturing process have coincided with demographic changes in the workforce such that many work sites include employees from extremely varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In the United States, social scientists have shown that in areas characterized by high proportions of immigrants, entire industries may be dominated by workers sharing a linguistic and cultural affiliation other than English (Waldinger, 2001; Waldinger and Lichter, 2003). Applied linguists have documented some of the ways workers and supervisors succeed or fail at managing both the production processes and social relationships in multilingual, multicultural work sites. Their work has enhanced the understanding of the multiple functions of language at work as well as the connections across different language communities outside work. Clyne's (1994) study of multicultural workplaces in Melbourne showed that various cultural groups favored relatively different patterns of speech act sets in talk, and that these patterns interacted with turn-taking behavior to shape communication; further, members of different linguistic and cultural groups tended to employ characteristic discourse styles based on their native languages even when communicating entirely in English. Goldstein's (1997) data on the language choices made by Portuguese-speaking women workers at a Toronto factory indicated that because of participation in dense and active social networks, mastery of English was often unnecessary for workplace responsibilities, although many desired it for other personally significant purposes such as communicating with children's teachers. Both projects provide ample evidence that good communicators in the workplaces are those who can grasp and convey comprehension of the material, historical, social, and cultural presuppositions that shape their work duties, and that such understandings need not be achieved or communicated mainly or exclusively in English even when that is the language of the surrounding society.4

Studies of workplace language in many industries attest that language, like other aspects of workplace activity, can reveal tensions. Kunda's 1992) ethnography of a United States high-tech company foregrounded (1) the company's language practices as exemplified in written documents, (2) the constant stream of e-mail, and (3) often ritualized presentations of work groups to each other as (p. 328) powerful normative influences on members of the organization. In exploring relationships between workers' experiences and attitudes and corporate success in an industry known for dramatic shifts in products and organization, the study documented an atmosphere of “high pressure ambiguity” (Kunda, 1992: 234) that coupled high expectations with lack of clear directives on how to achieve them. While documenting the experience of nonnative speakers of English working at professional jobs in Australia, Willing and collaborators (1992) found that meetings generally posed more much complex linguistic and interactional demands than moment-to-moment performance of other job duties. In a study of a British manufacturing plant adjusting to a change in management after a takeover, T. J. Watson 1997) showed that the talk among the production managers revealed ongoing tensions between the bottom-line-oriented new ownership and the original owners' empowerment philosophy even as the managers sought to reconcile the two views.

Technology-oriented companies have been on the forefront of computer use for internal employee communication as well as regulation of production, and they have thus been settings for much work exploring the multiple and reciprocal influences of technology, language, and social groups on each other. Murray's (1995) study of computer usage for management and internal communication at a U.S. high-tech company showed that, like earlier communications technologies, computer “technology both transforms and is itself transformed by society” (1995: 5); this study documented the now widely recognized attributes of a simplified register found in computer-mediated communications and illustrated some of the context-and topic-sensitive reasons for choosing among a variety of communication modes (fax, e-mail, phone call, personal conversation). The interface between people and technology is attracting considerable innovative theorizing (Devlin and Rosenberg, 1996) and ever more sophisticated design expertise (P. Taylor, 2009). Empirical research using the many techniques available in applied linguistics has a central role in further specification of the reciprocal influences of technology and human communication on each other.

Another arena in which communication has been studied regularly by several different groups is that of transportation—particularly air transport, a setting in which achievement of clear communication, sometimes under extreme time pressure, is essential and consequences of misunderstanding potentially dire. As with some other fields previously discussed, investigations of linguistic aspects of occupational activity are often conducted by nonlinguists and some accounts of difficulties may not always be made public (another partially occluded genre). Cushing's (1994) seminal study documented how, among other linguistic problems, ambiguity of reference and polysemy in commonly used expressions can contribute to accidents. Using conversation analytic methods, later investigators (Grommes and Dietrich, 2000; Nevile, 2007, 2008) demonstrate how particular grammatical patterns contribute to the coherence of pilot-copilot communication and point out that excessive overlapping talk in a cockpit may often accompany unanticipated technical problems during flight.

(p. 329) Language in Business and Sales-Related Positions

The last 20 years have witnessed an explosion of interest in the language used to conduct business negotiations within and across various linguistic and cultural borders, among them the economic shifts due to the demise of command economies and the increasing internationalization of business (Harris and Bargiela-Chiappini, 1997, 2003). Although there are literally hundreds of manuals and how-to guides aimed at sharing techniques for successful negotiation and sales, relatively few are based on real language data derived from relevant settings. Within the last 15 years, scholars in applied linguistics and related areas have begun to fill this gap through empirical analyses of intercultural and interlingual negotiations; chapters in Bargiela-Chiappini and Harris 1997) provide several relevant comparisons of the discourse of negotiations and service encounters within and across diverse linguistic and cultural groups. Such work continues, and has grown even more interesting from the perspective of applied linguistics because of the expansion of English as a lingua franca (ELF; Seidlhofer, 2004), one of the factors explored as a possible explanation for differences in participation levels in international meetings explored by Rogerson-Revell 2008). Growing use of English has co-occurred with increased use of electronic communication for routine business transactions, a development nicely exemplified by Jensen's (2008) study of e-mails exchanged by the director of a small Danish company and the sales manager of a larger Taiwanese company. Over the 3–month period of initial contact during which the smaller company sought to negotiate exclusive distribution rights for products of the Taiwanese company, there was evidence of growing personalization in the language used by the correspondents even as they negotiated the eventual possibilities and limits on what a contract would permit.

The role of the job interview in attaining initial employment is another area in which prescriptive recommendation abounds but actual data are comparatively scant. Applicants are often urged to “sell themselves” in interviews, and current applied linguistic scholarship shows this is by no means a simple injunction; M. White's 1994) study of the language used in 80 genuine job interviews indicated the successful interviews (defined as those in which the applicant got the job) could be described based on set of linguistic dimensions identified using corpus analysis, and, further, that the relevant dimensions differed somewhat according to type of job (professional versus no degree requirements) and gender of applicant. In an investigation of 47 initial interviews at a temporary staffing agency, Kerekes 2006) used conversation analytic methods to identify the interactional achievement of supervisors' judgments of trustworthiness that determined candidates' eventual success.

The growth of the service sector characteristic of most developed economies has led to greater interest in related language issues, particularly the role of sales in shaping and meeting consumer demands. Contemporary social science scholarship offers many important insights into the contradictory impulses that, in the spirit of “best-practice” companies and total quality management, promote personal, (p. 330) individual engagement in job-related interactions while, at the same time, aiming for greater efficiency and standardization of outcome. These tensions are tellingly explored in Leidner's (1993) ethnography of the recruitment, training, and occupational experiences used by a McDonald's restaurant and by a life insurance company dependent on door-to-door sales calls. In both enterprises, trainees were exposed to the language forms and uses deemed appropriate by the companies with videos and actual scripts, which they had to rehearse, and successful performance of scripted language on the job was reinforced by supervisor comments and, eventually, by some employees' own self-monitoring. Leidner argues that the ubiquitous and routinized service encounters characteristic of much contemporary life are actually changing norms of language use and interpretation: “Scripted service work accustoms both workers and service-recipients to participation in interaction that violates basic norms” (Leidner, 1993: 215) of genuineness, authenticity, and individuality to which most North Americans adhere, and employees become habituated to these new interactional norms and carry them into areas outside the job. Empirical research in applied linguistics could assess the changes in language behaviors and attitudes suggested by such studies. Indeed, organizational theorists (Kunda and Van Maanen, 1999) have already suggested that the postindustrial economy alters individual and organizational perceptions and expectations regarding stability and mobility at work; related research could help to show whether this affects workplace language use and norms. The trend toward outsourcing many types of customer service has created new research opportunities for applied linguists; Friginal's (2007, 2009b) analysis of telephone communication between North American customers and Filipino customer service agents provides many insights into the language forms and interactional norms typical of success in such interactions. Such research exemplifies the detailed study of actual language called for by organizational theorists (Barley and Kunda, 2001) concerned with postindustrial conditions of workplace life. Anthropologists have already documented innovations in local styles of social interaction and communication brought about by the establishment of fast food outlets in parts of Asia (J. L. Watson, 1997); applied linguistic research can be used to gauge the impact of new forms of commercial transaction on language norms and attitudes, discourse conventions, and the politeness formulas and vocabulary items pertaining to interactions between employees and consumers in a globalized service economy.

Symbolic Language: Media and Advertising

Many of the developments related to recognition of the links between language use and creation and manipulation of power relationships that mark the study of language use in various professional contexts also apply to the study of language used in mass media (see, e.g., Bell, 1991; Fairclough, 1995b), though these have not been explored in detail. As with other aspects of language use in professional contexts, studies of media language also demonstrate trends toward a critical perspective on the (p. 331) contents of messages, as well as the language used, particularly as implicated in cross-cultural references (Piller, 2003; Riggins, 1997) and the reciprocal influences of various technological forms on media content and language (see Myers, 1999, 2000).


Scholarship on the language used in professional and occupational settings has been sponsored by a variety of institutions or agencies whose agendas affect the research purpose and phenomena chosen for study, the accessibility of data, and the ultimate use and dissemination of the results. Research has been conducted from a descriptive, a confirmatory, or a critical stance. Whatever the occupational focus or analytic stance, current scholarship on language and work is now more sensitized to issues of the way people construct and maintain their work worlds through talk and, frequently, through the generation, consultation, and interpretation of related print materials and electronic technologies. Social changes affecting the economic opportunities available to men and women have made gender an important variable in the study of workplace language. Demographic changes leading to more multiethnic and multicultural workplaces mean that applied linguistic research can be used to identify relevant communication issues whether work-site communication takes place in several languages or only in one. Finally, technological changes related to the integration of computer technologies into many workplaces coincide with other social and demographic developments, affecting many aspects of communication. Language used in the workplace is never only about work; it expresses and shapes the social realities experienced by workers and spills over into the understandings about work, life, and people—understandings that carry over into other realms of individual and social experience. Hence, ongoing research on language uses in professional and occupational activities belongs in the mainstream of contemporary applied linguistics. Without it, theorists, researchers, and policymakers are likely to oversimplify the complexities and contradictions connecting the study of language and society.


(1.) The historical provenance of legal language, a line of research related to philology, has interested attorneys and legal scholars for decades; see, for example, Melinkoff 's classic The Language of the Law (1963), which characterizes legal language as “wordy, unclear, pompous, and dull,” 24 ff.) and a more recent exemplar, Tiersma's Legal Language (1999). I shall not discuss these works further here because they deal mainly with written language and word-level phenomena rather than the actual language used by participants in legal proceedings. Still, they represent a genre worth noting by applied linguists. Both books provide the historical pedigree (going back, in some cases, more than 2 millennia to Celtic Britain) of technical legal terminology used most often in writing, and both admonish attorneys to eschew obfuscation and communicate clearly in “plain language.” Melinkoff observes that even before the seventeenth century, lawyers and even judges made money based in part on lengths of documents prepared and filed, thus furnishing a strong incentive for wordiness (1963: 186ff). Tiersma's (1999) treatment begins to address the conflicting motivations for uses of language in legal settings (establishing and maintaining authority versus communicating with outsiders, be they clients or jury members) and the economic practices that promote relative wordiness (charging by the page or the hour) versus concision (charging based on contingencies or recovery). Though the latter observation is based on the writer's experience rather than a particular research study, it is one of many areas of language use in the law in which applied linguistic research using contemporary empirical methods would be well warranted.

(2.) A classic in this genre is Boys in White (Becker et al., 1961), an account of medical school life at the University of Kansas in 1956–1957. Although it is enlightening to read the book as a portrait of the social divisions affecting student experience at the time—one of the most important of which was whether or not the students were members of fraternities or “independents,” and, secondarily, whether students were married or single—it contains little explicit attention to language, defined either as number and type of technical vocabulary items to learn or as communication skills students needed to acquire. Instead, investigators represent students as overwhelmingly engaged in figuring out what the faculty members would select for the frequent quizzes, tests, and practical laboratory exams, a preoccupation certainly not limited to medical students though it was, apparently, characteristic of them.

(3.) Because of the necessarily embodied nature of medicine and medical practice, studies of medical communication routinely include much greater attention to nonverbal behavior than studies of language use in legal settings or in most other professional or occupational arenas; see, for example, I. Robinson 1998 for a careful explication of the simultaneous functions of verbal and nonverbal elements in the initial moments of medical office visits. In this chapter, for reasons of length, I restrict discussion to studies that emphasize the linguistic aspect of medical communication but note that any overall consideration of communication in the provision of health care must reckon with the physicality of interactions between providers and patients.

(4.) These studies also suggest that the performance of successful bilinguals deserves reconceptualization on a theoretical level, a principal contention of Woolard 1999). See Kaplan 1979) for a discussion of immigrant Polynesian workers in New Zealand workplaces. Additional applied linguistic research on dimensions of language contact in the workplace could advance theoretical developments as well as provide data valuable for a wide range of practical decisions.