When language becomes the subject of work: multilingualism in Biel/Bienne’s call centres

Project management
01.2010 - 12.2011
Competences, History, Institutions, Policy

The city Biel/Bienne is experiencing an economic boom. Alongside the traditional watch industry, Biel/Bienne has set its sights on diversification and is now exploring the service and communication sector. This recent development is particularly interesting due to its link to the city’s bilingual character which in turn, is regarded as a major factor in the economic upswing. In the service and communication sector, bilingualism – or even multilingualism – has effectively become the actual subject of work. The city’s abundance of bilingual (German and French) and multilingual (second-generation non-Swiss) employees make Biel/Bienne very appealing to communication companies in general and for call centres in particular. As a result, Biel/Bienne has become home to a number of call centres that offer their services throughout plurilingual Switzerland. The fact that these companies have chosen the region – and that language use and multilingualism is an integral part of their business – has transformed Biel/Bienne into a uniquely significant area for linguistic research. It therefore presents a promising opportunity to observe the role multilingualism plays in these new areas of employment, to highlight the value of this often-neglected linguistic work, and to uncover the associated questions and problems.


Purpose – Expected results

The focus of the current project is the exploration of the relationship between the expanding service and communication sector and Biel/Bienne’s characteristic bi- or multilingualism. The first phase of the project endeavours to gather information on the historical developments leading to Biel/Bienne’s specialisation in communications. In addition, the city’s bilingual character will be examined in the context of its role in bringing companies associated with the New Economy to the region: What did bilingualism contribute to the development? Was it a marketing tool to attract call centres or were other socioeconomic factors decisive?

The next step examines the role of multilingualism in marketing and recruitment strategies in the form of a case study at a specific call centre: How is the concept of multilingualism understood? How important is multilingualism in areas such as marketing and recruiting employees?

The third phase of the project concentrates on practices at work and employees who work with language: What kind of background do people working in call centres have? How do they interpret their work and the multilingualism they live at their jobs?

The project inquires into the relationship between multilingualism and employment from the perspective of a) political decision-makers, b) companies in the language industry and c) people who work with language in multilingual environments. The project enables a differentiated and critical examination of the impact multilingualism has on the social and economic resources in the city of Biel/Bienne.