Bring an English Calling Card to Germany | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 13.12.2005
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Bring an English Calling Card to Germany

The world speaks English. Many German companies are making it their mother tongue. Some workers see this as an opportunity, others as a curse, for their careers. Yet corporate English is also a question of culture.


Are multilingual corporations at a disadvantage?

The German business world is going through a tough transition period. Companies like technology giant Siemens, auto manufacturer DaimlerChrysler and software producer SAP sell much more abroad than in Germany -- and nowadays, the language of business abroad is conducted primarily in English.

Already in 1999, the publishing house Bertelsmann began printing more and more books in English, which became the lingua franca. Other publishers soon followed suit.

When the Munich-based HypoVereinsbank merged with Italy's Unicredito, the boards decided that instead of denigrating German or Italian by snubbing one over the other, they would use English in the company's official communications -- a fact that's more befitting a bank of its size anyway.

Multilingualism costs money

Kombo HypoVereinsbank und UniCredito

English resulted when German HVB Group merged with Italian Unicredito

In the international business world, fusions, takeovers and global interests are forcing corporations -- in the plain interest of economics -- to make one language the official company tongue, and that is usually English. A multilingual environment is simply expensive. Interpreters and translators are necessary during talks and for internal communication, something that adds up over the long run.

"That quickly becomes economically unfeasible," said business expert Jürgen Hausschildt. "And in spite of translations, there are repeated misunderstandings."

Particularly the internal vernacular and terminology in a company are difficult to translate, according to Hausschildt.

Companies in smaller countries do away with mother tongue

A single company language can prevent such misunderstandings in addition to lowering costs. Nevertheless, the possible variations are limitless.

"In small countries like Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, only English is spoken in companies. They've done away with their mother tongue all together," said Hausschildt.

In most offices, there is a two-language culture.

Handy Produktion von Siemens in Brasilien

At Siemens' mobile phone plant In Brazil, Portuguese is spoken

German banking giant Deutsche Bank is one example. International queries are answered in English, questions from Germany in German.

Siemens does it similarly, yet at the same time, it tries to promote an image as a company whose home is where the office is.

"Siemens is a global company, but in America we speak English, in India Hindi, and in France French," said company spokesman Georg Haux.

Fears of a manager

What's good for the goose, here the company, isn't necessarily good for the gander, in this case the employees. Managers frequently fear that their failure to speak a foreign language could hinder their chances of climbing further up the corporate ladder.

"Those who speak the mother tongue are preferred when it comes to managerial positions," said Hausschildt.

Phishing beim Online-Banking, Deutsche Bank Seite

When asking Deutsche Bank outside of Germany, the response is in English

Even when a worker is better qualified, if the language skills are lacking, these shortcomings can cost them a promotion. Another problem confronts those who are good communicators and have even better than average English abilities -- the loss of soft skills.

"This is a terrible situation for many managers," said expert Hausschildt.

Back to basics

Those companies that do decide to put all their eggs in one basket and use English must exert a lot of energy in the beginning phase. Meetings take longer and any potential misunderstandings must be clarified.

So that everyone manages to communicate on a similar level, or at least be able to, some companies resort to a basic English whose lexicon consists of between 400 and 800, according to Hausschildt. In many offices, this minimum is mandatory.

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