Multilingualism and Economy

German as a Foreign Language in Business: Employees that learn German are more Content and Work better


Germany is a country of immigration, and the question of how it should deal with cultural and ethnic diversity as well as immigration and integration has been much discussed. Businesses, too, must come to grips with the growing inter-culturality of their personnel. Big, global companies in particular have recognised the importance of good diversity management for their economic success. Does the German language still have a role to play in this?

There are branch offices of SAP PLC, a big provider of business software, in over fifty countries. Alone the staff at the company headquarters in Walldorf, near Heidelberg, includes over eighty nationalities. The management of SAP sees the diverse and international staff as a corner stone of the company's success. "Diversity in business", says Mathias Huber, who is in charge of the Human Resources Centre of the software concern, "can be an important factor in promoting creativity, innovation and progress".

In order to cope with cultural diversity in the company, SAP has made English its working language. Telephone conversations and written correspondence as well as in-house meetings are conducted in English so that employees of various nationalities can surmount language barriers and find their footing in the daily work from the start.

German lessons at home and at the workplace

Knowledge of German makes the weekly shopping easier. Copyright: Colourbox.SAP, according to Huber, invests strongly in the further training of staff. Although knowledge of English is sufficient for daily work, the company offers German lessons for foreign employees, including targeted schooling, learning by oneself with e-learning and employee networks, so that, as Huber says, "employees can adjust themselves as well as possible to the multi-cultural daily routine. SAP encourages and supports everyone who would like to learn German. We work with language teachers who come to the firm and give employees instruction directly at the workplace so that teaching is optimally integrated into work". SAP also offers group courses, which take place mainly outside the company grounds and aim at improving an already acquired knowledge of German. In individual cases, SAP even provides language instruction for members of employees' families.

Knowledge of German is very important for integration

At the beginning of 2008, Pamela Seplow moved to Walldorf from the United States and is now in charge of SAP’s “Learning and Talent Management”. She recalls that initially she shrank from the move because German is regarded as a difficult language to learn: “German is a very difficult language. German grammar is much more complex than English grammar”.

SAP logo. Copyright: SAP

Even if employees can do their jobs at SAP without knowledge of German, lack of the commonly spoken language presents many obstacles in everyday life. Daily contact with neighbours, chatting at the super-market counter during weekly shopping and official errands then represent a considerable challenge.

Knowledge of German can also contribute to integration at the workplace. Huber tells of an English-speaking colleague who is better able to understand her German-speaking colleagues’ little errors in English thanks to her knowledge of German.

Many German companies offer opportunities of further training

Siemens in Munich. Copyright: SiemensOther global companies in Germany also offer their staff numerous opportunities for further training and integration at the workplace. For example, like SAP, the staff department of the technology concern Siemens attempts to facilitate the entry of foreign employees into their new professional routine by targeted German lessons and by furnishing e-learning software.

English as the international language of business

Although for globally operating German businesses English is the working language and German is of lesser importance, knowledge of German is indispensable for integration at the workplace and in private life, and can naturally make life in Germany much easier. Only employees who are well integrated come to work motivated and capable of giving their best; it therefore pays for businesses like Siemens and SAP to invest in German lessons.

Julia Geiser
is a freelance writer living in Wiesloch.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
February 2009

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