“The ideal Russian speaker is no Russian”: language commodification and its limits in medical tourism to Switzerland
It is the aim of this paper to examine the management of multilingualism in the Swiss healthcare industry and the negotiation of the oftentimes fluctuating and unstable value of linguistic resources in the care for medical tourists; on the other hand highlighting how international healthcare and medical tourism emerge as sites emblematic of the global new economy and the exploitation of those linguistic resources. Insights will be drawn from two research sites that are currently engaged in the care of international patients, a private medical clinic and spa I call Mountain Medical Resort as well as a public general hospital I call Lakeside Hospital. While both institutions offer to provide assistance and translation in a number of languages, this research primarily focuses on Russian as the language spoken by the largest share of medical tourists at both sites and in Switzerland as a whole. In particular, it is my aim to highlight how Russian as a linguistic resource is managed at Mountain Medical Resort and Lakeside Hospital to attend to visiting international patients. This will illustrate, which specific linguistic proficiencies are deemed valuable and how changes in market conditions and patient numbers have an impact on the commodity value of languages and that of Russian in particular. Here, it is the aim of this research to examine how, in which instances and under which conditions languages gain and may again lose a marketable value and how institutional policies react to that. Based on the two research sites that are exemplary for the current rise in numbers of medical tourists seeking treatment in Switzerland as much as they represent the transformation towards health as a consumable product, this also implies to examine how the neoliberal transformation of healthcare is connected to the re-imagination of language as a commodified skill under current political-economic conditions (Park in J Multiling Multicult Dev 37(5):453–466, 2016). Exemplified by medical tourism as a key site of the global new economy and Russian as a potentially commodifiable linguistic resource, this will also leave us with broader implications on the changing regimes of value of languages and on the role of language in the neoliberal economy.
KeywordsLanguage commodification Language policy at work Language and health Medical tourism Russian
This paper is part of a research project of the author entitled ‘Niches for riches: Language commodification in medical tourism to Switzerland’ that was funded by the Institute of Multilingualism at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland in 2014 and 2015. I would like to thank Alexandre Duchêne, my colleagues at the Institute of Multilingualism and the participants of the colloquium ‘Exploring the limits of language commodification: Changing regimes of value in space and time' at the AAAL 2016 conference for their generous support and valuable feedback. I would also like to thank my respondents at both MMR and LH, because without their support this paper would not have materialized. Lastly I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their detailed and insightful comments. All mistakes are entirely my own.
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