Multilingualism and Economy

Introduction To The Focal Subjects

"Multilingualism And Economy"

Wherever economic internationalisation processes are involved, 'economy' and 'multilingualism' prove to be two sides of the same coin: without international trade the spectrum of linguistic contacts would be much smaller, language families such as the Indo-European would not exist, at least in their present form.
German would not have such terms as "Konto" (account), "Bilanz" (balance sheet) or "Scheck" (cheque) and the symbol for the British pound sterling "£" would certainly not have been derived from the Italian 'libra'. On the other hand it is true that, for example, without the willingness to practise multilingualism trading routes such as the Silk Road would not have been opened up, or that the trading associations such as the Hanseatic League and the Fuggers would not have enjoyed the success that enabled them to act as central economic forces in Europe for centuries. And last but not least it should be mentioned in this connection that it was precisely Jacob Fugger who was said to have given the – now highly topical – advice, when conducting business negotiations speak your own language and understand the foreign tongue.

Lingua franca of the Mediterranean area

The Romance-based lingua franca of the Mediterranean region, for which there is evidence from the High Middle Ages to the late 19th Century, is testimony to how a largely autonomous and yet multilingual business language can develop with clear regional variants from the multilingualism of a trading area. Alongside its Romance fundamentals it contained elements of the Arabic, Persian, Greek and Slavic.
Today such a linguistic diversity is largely unknown in the economic domain.

In past centuries the experience of nation states and colonial relationships have tended to encourage respect for a universalistic and homogeneity-oriented mode of thought, and hence to favour the establishment of English as a modern lingua franca.

Intercultural misunderstandings

It is often overlooked that there exist not only numerous variants of English, but that those involved in communication associate very different meanings even with common, everyday terms. Intercultural misunderstandings are therefore inevitable.

And yet the equation "English ≠ English" describes an insight which – paradoxically – is only now becoming accepted in the current globalisation phase. The mobility-induced diversity of intercultural contact situations promotes greater acceptance and tolerance of regional conventions of language and action. With regard to the foreign language situation in the economy this implies increasingly the willingness to include not only English as the lingua franca, but also other languages as means of communication in day-to-day business operations and to realign human resources management accordingly.

Multilingualism is key

This trend is confirmed by the ELAN study[1] commissioned in 2006 by the EU Commission and conducted in companies from 29 European countries. According to this, knowledge of English is found to be almost indispensable, yet it only accounts for 29% of the future total demand for foreign language skills.[2] Multilingualism – and this is the quintessence of the study – is indispensable because communication adequate to target markets in a global market can create precisely those competitive advantages which, on the product side, are being levelled down by the increasing number of standardisation measures. With this in mind, the finding of the ELAN study that, in conservative terms, "at least 945,000 European SMEs may be losing trade as a result of lack of language competence"[3] can virtually be taken as a call to incorporate a multilingual orientation in programmatic form in business policy.

Closer dovetailing

The "Multilingual Economy" project is seen as providing impetus for relevant initiatives – in particular with respect to content, method and organisation:

In terms of content the aim should be a closer interlinking of foreign language teaching, situation-related cultural learning and intercultural learning. It is important here to spotlight in particular those contexts which help build up long-term relationships and create trust. Metalinguistic knowledge is required in this context just as much as the ability to initiate multilingual communication and action situations in relation to the specific workplace and to master them successfully.

Use of Internet-based media

In terms of methodology this assumes the willingness to adapt learning scenarios more closely to occupational practice, to extend communicative-interactive (laboratory) learning to include collaborative experience (e.g. in intercultural projects) and to open up monolingual foreign language learning environments with a view to multilingual practice (e.g. by conducting multilingual, intercultural negotiation trainings). A suitable means of implementing such approaches today is primarily that of Internet-based media. They can be used in particular to set up, via virtual classrooms, Skype or learning platforms, cross-national learning scenarios and to generate intercultural, multilingual action.
Procedures for constructing corresponding collaborative, virtual learning environments have not been tried to any great extent to date. This requires on the one hand a high degree of creativity, for example in relation to the interlinking possibilities between informal and controlled learning processes.

Language competence management

Furthermore it will be absolutely essential on the corporate side to link human resources development and organisational development more closely - and this with an intercultural slant. An obvious approach, and one which would be profitable for larger companies in particular, would be the establishment of a linguistic knowledge management system for example. At present the mother-tongue, second-language and (inter)cultural competencies of workers – including expatriates and repatriates – are normally not registered and can therefore not be rendered usable in corporate practice. Translation and interpretation support services, intercultural tutoring and coaching, tandem learning or advisory services with respect to the target culture are potentials which are in principle present within companies, but they would have to be developed much more systematically and more purposefully.

It would be helpful in this connection to create in-house and out-of-house incentive systems with respect to multilingual practice and the development of intercultural competency. Internally an appropriately oriented in-service training points system could motivate workers to make their own knowledge explicit and to place it at the company's disposal in the form of services, to seek out knowledge sources or to take part in measures to develop multilingualism and intercultural competency.

Political institutions are called upon to contribute

Externally the achievements of individual workers (verified by points score) could be converted into certificates, which could then, for example, help companies gain easier access to funds for international projects. As with the award of environmental certificates, the political institutions should undoubtedly also be involved – and appropriately on an EU level.

[1] CILT - The National Centre for Languages (Ed.), ELAN: Effects on the European Economy of Shortages of Foreign Language Skills in Enterprise. 2006
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[2] ibid., p.55
[3] ibid., p.5

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Bolten

Personal details:
Prof. Dr. Jürgen Bolten heads the Faculty of Intercultural Economic Communication at the University of Jena. His main research interests are intercultural human resources and organisational development, cultural and communication theory, intercultural knowledge management and E-learning in intercultural learning environments.


    copyright: Europäische Kommission
    Under the patronage of Leonard Orban, Member of the European Commission responsible for multilingualism


    With texts, sound reports and photos, reporters cover four selected projects within the “Multilingualism – Languages without Borders” initiative.