Multilingualism and Economy

Immigrant Languages: An Occupational Asset

Dr. Meyer, you were commissioned by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) to identify occupational fields in which immigrant languages may be of use. Why did the BAMF want to know that?

Dr. Bernd Meyer of Hamburg University. 
Photo/Copyright: Dr. Bernd Meyer
Somehow we all feel it’s not a bad idea to promote the native languages of immigrants. But the question is: What for? What specifically can people do with them? People used to say all the time: It’s mainly a matter of cultural heritage. In other words, when children with Spanish parents go to see their grandparents in Spain, they ought to be able to talk to them. But above and beyond that, the BAMF wanted to know whether it’s important for the German economy or for integration processes in general to promote immigrant languages. Are there any occupational areas in which these languages are an asset?

Well then, how can one measure the economic and societal benefits of multilingualism?

For starters we looked to see: where is there any measurable demand at all? To begin with, there’s some in the whole medical and social services sector. In every immigrant group, 20 to 25 per cent say: I don’t speak German all that well. The question is then: How do these people communicate with German institutions – with kindergartens, with schools, with doctors and so forth? Those who bring about this communication are immigrants, too, and they’re the assimilated, successful ones – for instance, nurses, doctor’s receptionists, doctors. They perform a bridging function for the less well-integrated folks. Which means their multilingualism is an asset in their occupational qualification – though an asset that often doesn’t pay. They don’t make more money as a result.

In what other areas do employees who speak immigrant languages give companies tangible economic advantages?

A command of immigrant languages is often an asset in nursing professions. 
Copyright: Colourbox
Bank tellers, for example, tell us: Customers come to this bank because I’m sitting here and can give them information in Turkish, too. That creates a feeling of trust. It pays for the banks to make well-targeted use of that. Once companies recognize such advantages, they react quite flexibly. In Hamburg, for instance, there’s a drugstore chain where the staff have little flags on their name-badges to signal: You can speak Turkish to me if you like. This is an attempt to muster every last resource in the competition with other stores. In some neighbourhoods that’s more than just a symbolic gesture.

It’s always assumed that English has become established as the lingua franca at big firms in one’s own country. But when you look at individual departments, at specific markets, you notice that even at big firms they try to hoist up immigrants to certain positions where they can then make contact with local partners. Who calls customs in Istanbul, for example, when a shipment doesn’t arrive? You won’t get far with English there, and it can’t be handled by someone who once took a course in Turkish either. The day-to-day nitty-gritty work of international commerce is very often carried out by immigrants, even in big firms. In organizational terms, there’s hardly any other way of doing it. Hiring an interpreter every time would be impractical and expensive.

In public administration, on the other hand, it’s not legally possible at all to take advantage of such resources.

That’s particularly absurd. Because German’s the legally prescribed official language, a civil servant theoretically isn’t even allowed to use his language skills, although it’s useful and helpful in many cases for him to do so. For example, when someone who doesn’t speak German well comes to get a driving licence, and the clerk notices, “He’s Russian and I speak Russian myself,” then he could actually clear up the problem in no time in Russian. But de jure the conversation would have to be broken off and an interpreter provided by the customer at his own expense. That would be the correct way of doing things, which involves an incredible amount of extra hassle and frustration for the customer. So many people figure: Then I’ll just keep driving with my old licence – till the next time I get pulled over by the police. I think it’s essential to ease up somewhat on this regulation and leave it up to the staff to use a different language whenever it makes sense to do so.

The language skills of child minders at daycare centres often prove invaluable. 
Copyright: Colourbox

Aren’t we impeding the integration of those with little knowledge of German if we make it possible for them to communicate in their mother tongue everywhere they go?

Definitely. What I’m after is a flexible attitude toward the use of German, meaning that wherever it’s possible and sensible we should deviate from the German-speaking norm and say: We can speak Turkish for a change here; here it makes sense to discuss something in Russian for once. It’s really a matter of multilingualism, the mixing and parallel use of German and immigrant languages. It mustn’t be a matter of using them alternatively along the lines of: here we have a government agency just for the Turks.

What measures do you suggest to make better use of multilingual potential?

Government agencies should be asking themselves more than they have in the past whether they’re really accessible to people who don’t speak German well and whether things couldn’t be improved there. Asking questions like that would be a first step, which isn’t hard to put into practice either. It would make sense, for instance, to precisely define for certain positions whether a command of immigrant languages can be a relevant asset.

Businesses are way ahead of government. They need support primarily in putting their ideas into practice – an exchange, for example, about good professional training projects. If an employee assists in negotiations, serving for all intents and purposes as an interpreter there, that’s equivalent to the work of professional interpreters and translators. People like that should be specially trained to prep them for these assignments. Companies would probably be grateful for concrete project proposals. It’s also a matter of figuring out how to give more attention to that in basic training and human resources development.

Unfortunately, universities seldom offer courses specifically geared toward honing skills in immigrant languages. Language acquisition often takes place only within the family and many do not fully master the language. It would make sense to embed stuff like that in courses of study in modular form: technical Turkish, for example, for Turkish-speaking medical or law students.

You say EU language policy favours national languages and autochthonous minority languages over immigrant languages.

The European Union chiefly promotes Member State languages. 
Copyright: Colourbox 
Yes. While the EU has in theory recognized that there is great potential among the immigrants living in the EU, it is still always considered more important to strengthen relations within the EU – which makes sense too, of course. Ideas and projects concerning immigrant languages are a hot potato: there’s a racist undercurrent in every country that perceives any form of support for immigrant languages and culture as detrimental to integration. This fear isn’t entirely unfounded either. That’s why we propose integrating support for immigrant languages into vocational training or into standard foreign language instruction, in other words pulling it out of the “ghetto corner”. This support is in society’s interest. It’s not a matter of promoting clannishness among immigrants, but showing ways in which their potential can be infused into the host society. The idea hasn’t really hit home in the EU yet.

Christoph Brammertz
asked the questions. He is a member of the Goethe-Institut online editorial staff.
Translation: Eric Rosencrantz

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

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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.