Language at work in the Big Four: global aspirations and local segmentation

Dominic Detzen*, Lukas Loehlein

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to examine how professional service firms (PSFs) manage the linguistic tensions between global Englishization and local multilingualism. It achieves this by analysing the work of Big Four audit firms in Luxembourg, where three official languages co-exist: Luxembourgish, French, and German. In addition, expatriates bring with them their native languages in a corporate environment that uses English as its lingua franca. Design/methodology/approach: The paper combines the institutionalist sociology of the professions with theoretical concepts from sociolinguistics to study the multifaceted role of language in PSFs. Empirically, the paper draws from 25 interviews with current and former audit professionals. Findings: The client orientation of the Big Four segments each firm into language teams based on the client’s language. It is thus the client languages, rather than English as the corporate language, that mediate, define, and structure intra- and inter-organizational relationships. While the firms emphasize the benefits of their linguistic adaptability, the paper reveals tensions along language lines, suggesting that language can be a means of creating cohesion and division within the firms. Originality/value: This paper connects research on PSFs with that on the role of language in multinational organizations. In light of the Big Four’s increasingly global workforce, it draws attention to the linguistic divisions within the firms that question the existence of a singular corporate culture. While prior literature has centred on firms’ global–local divide, the paper shows that even single branches of such firm networks are not monolithic constructs, as conflicts and clashes unfold amid a series of “local–local” divides.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2031-2054
Number of pages24
JournalAccounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 17 Sept 2018


  • Big Four firms
  • Language
  • Language absorptive capacity
  • Linguascapes


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