WUN Funded Research 2013

Title of project: Negotiating Multilingual Identities in Migrant Professional Contexts

Through an interview research with diverse migrant groups in different English-dominant countries, this project aims to understand the communication strategies and tacit skills professional migrants adopt to resolve their identity conflicts. Led by Penn State, researchers from universities in Bristol, Cape Town, Hong Kong, Leeds, Madison, Rochester, Sydney, and York  will interview skilled migrants from a specific speech community in their own locations to elicit narratives on the following questions:

1.       What are the social and communicative dynamics of professional interaction in the transnational workplace?
2.       What are the ways in which skilled migrants resolve the dilemmas between their local linguacultural identities and transnational professional relationships in workplace interactions?
3.       What are the tacit forms of knowledge, values, and skills that enable skilled migrants to negotiate their interactional dilemmas effectively?

After eight months of data collection, transcription, and coding, the investigators will meet in Penn State to interpret their findings. Beyond the points of similarity, the multi-sited study will help understand the differences between national groups in different work contexts to develop a qualified and comparative perspective.

With Penn State serving as the hub, the following universities will collaborate in this project:
in UK: York University; Bristol University; Leeds University;
in Australia: University of Sydney;
in South Africa: University of Cape Town;
in Hong Kong: Hong Kong Baptist University; Chinese University of Hong Kong;
in USA: University of Wisconsin at Madison; University of Rochester.



Dec 30, 2011

Skilled Migration and Global English:

Language, Development, and the African Professional

WUN Briefing Paper February 2011

Skilled migrants (SM) are important agents for development.   Harnessing the economic and social benefits of remitting while minimizing social and political costs represents an important locus of international policy discussion. The Migration-Development nexus has engendered useful partnerships between governments and skilled diaspora groups, e.g., Global Scot.  However, the role of the African skilled diaspora for development is not particularly well established or studied, and needs more attention.

While much discussion extols the benefits of knowledge circulation and brain gain, little systematic attention has been given to the role of language.  Neo-classical frameworks regard fluency as an important input for individual migrants’ economic success in destination settings.  As most SM move to labor markets where English is the language of business, acquisition of English is seen as an important element of human capital.  A lucrative English as Second Language industry has emerged globally, furthering the dominance of Global English.  What remains unexamined is the role of language for SM who may contribute to development work which involves simultaneous engagement with developed English-language host communities, multilingual global labour markets, and non-English African communities that are targets of development. Also unexamined is the fact that English language constitutes different varieties globally, and generates considerable challenges in inter-community relations.

WUN Pilot Study

The research reported below is part of a larger study funded by the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN).  Here, we report on three research questions:

1.          How does English shape the flow of SM and trajectories of migration?

2.          In what ways does English shape the levels of success of SM?

3.          How does English affect SM role in development?

Led by the Penn State University, researchers from 8 international universities focused on SM from sub-Saharan Africa, working in the US, UK, Australia, South Africa, and Uganda.  Uniquely, the researchers used a common survey (adjusted for origin/destination contexts) to collect ethnographic data on how language affects migration and development.

English and the trajectories of SM

English affected the development of the global networks of skilled migrants in complementary ways.  First, many respondents left Africa to obtain tertiary education, and their moves were made to English-language institutions.  Second, respondents typically left universities to pursue careers not in their home countries but in labour markets with employment opportunities, which were also English-speaking. Third, English proficiency helped SM in intermediary locations in their trajectory of migration. Many of our subjects developed their English competence in their home educational systems, benefitting from the importance given to English in local educational policies. English proficiency was generally felt to enhance careers and, thus, prolong stay outside Africa. 

English and the success of SM

However, formal proficiency in English emerged as inadequate. Rather, communicative competence is perceived as a key ingredient for professional success.  Respondents meant by communicative competence the ability to use the right mix of formal and informal, standard and colloquial, varieties as contextually appropriate with native speakers and diverse migrant groups. They related instances of difficulty caused by a lack of being able to perform in the varieties of English that were locally valued. As outsiders, they also felt they were required to demonstrate a higher standard of language proficiency, and experienced biases against their home varieties.  Furthermore, they pointed out that in many cases English was not sufficient. They needed an expanded repertoire to negotiate the newly emergent global markets. They had to code switch between their home languages and formal contexts to be effective in knowledge circulation and development work.

English and role of SM in Development

Our research underscored the importance for SM to shift between colonial, workplace, lingua franca, and home languages.  Communicative competence in two and sometimes more languages, not to mention diverse varieties of English, enhances development.  Ability to communicate in English secured the resources (financial, influence, concepts etc.) that were inputs to developments.  Ability to communicate in local languages ensured development goals and strategies could be (re)negotiated, provided development efforts legitimacy and local support/continuity, and enabled the social reproduction of the (extended) family networks that underpinned SM life course strategies. Development work for our subjects extended beyond their countries of origins to imagined communities that tied them to diaspora families and professional affiliations, requiring more diverse language repertoires.


Our study shows the need to reconsider the place of global English in national policies of both sending and receiving countries, and in the development efforts of NGOs. We have to consider fostering multilingual repertoires for transnational professional and development work. We have to also go beyond human-capital perspectives in valuing the many informal and tacit competences and dispositions SM use to successfully negotiate the communicative challenges they face.

Further Research

1.          How do SM negotiate the tensions in transnational communication for which educational institutions and policies don’t prepare them?

2.          What are the key elements of such communicative competence and language repertoires? Are they gendered/classed?

3.          What dispositions and strategies do SM use to shuttle between communicative contexts? 

4.          What informal channels help develop such multilingual dispositions and strategies?

5.          How can policy and pedagogy foster these expanded communicative resources?

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Dec 30, 2015

Project Report: “Skilled Migration and Global English: Language, Development, and the African Professional” Funded by the Worldwide Universities Network, Feb. 1, 2010 to Feb.1, 2011. PLEASE DOWNLOAD THE REPORT FROM THE LINK BELOW:
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Research Project: “Skilled Migration and Global English: Language, Development, and the African Professional.”

Feb 10, 2012

The center won a competitive grant from the Worldwide Universities Network for a collaborative international research on an emerging issue in globalization. The title of the project is “Skilled Migration and Global English: Language, Development, and the African Professional."

With Penn State as the hub institution, scholars from the following universities are collaborating in this research project: Bristol (UK), York (UK), Leeds (UK), Sydney (Australia), Cape Town (South Africa), and Wisconsin, and Washington (USA). This is a multi-disciplinary inquiry in multiple locations to understand the transnational flow of migrant workers and the way their language proficiency impacts their prospects for success.

After collecting data from ethnographic field work, the co-PI’s from these institutions visited Penn State in December (10-11th) 2010 to share their findings, prepare a report, plan a collaborative publication, and draft an application for an external grant. The research is ongoing.

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International Workshop: Skilled Diasporas and the Transnational Flow of Knowledge and Resources

Apr 30, 2010

The Migration Studies Project won a competitive Grant from the Office of the Associate Vice President for Research, PSU, for an international workshop involving universities from the Worldwide Universities Network and non-governmental organizations.

Title of project: “Skilled Diasporas and the Transnational Flow of Knowledge and Resources.”

The workshop was held at Penn State on April 30th and May 1st 2010. The objective was to share research insights on an emerging topic on globalization and establish networks for future collaboration and research. The following universities were represented by leading scholars who are studying migration: Bristol (UK), Cape Town (South Africa), George Washington University, Leeds (UK), Sydney (Australia), Wisconsin, Washington, and York (UK).

The following national and international nongovernmental organizations were represented: Inter‐American Dialogue, Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, Institute for Mexicans Abroad, Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA), National Research Foundation, South Africa, International Council for Science Regional Office for Africa, Pretoria, South Africa, The World Bank. The details program can be downloaded below.

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Scholarly Project: “Global Regionalisms, Governance and Higher Education.”

Mar 10, 2010

Migration Studies is collaborating with universities in the Worldwide Universities Network on the project “Global Regionalisms, Governance and Higher Education.” Other institutions participating in the project are the Universities of Bristol, Cape Town, Madison, and Sydney.

This project examines the emergence of new forms of region-building and inter-regional relations around the globe, as they are imagined and governed through innovative forms of higher education at the supra-national scale. Collaborating institutions met in Chicago in March 2010 for a workshop and are working towards a book publication.