Multilingualism and Economy

Language and cultural awareness as a vital factor in business success

Companies profit from employees who possess foreign-language  Photo: Diogo Basílio © iStockphotoCompanies profit from employees who possess foreign-language  Photo: Diogo Basílio © iStockphotoCompanies are missing out on business opportunities by not investing in the foreign-language and intercultural capacities of their employees. In particular, small-size businesses should be sending their workers abroad.

Whether companies are holding conferences with international business partners, dealing with suppliers, selling products and services abroad, or trying to approach new target groups in a domestic market, companies must be willing and able to deal with different languages and cultural scenarios. Roughly five years ago, a study in 2,000 small- and medium-size companies across Europe showed that businesses profit from employees who possess foreign-language and intercultural competence. What's more, because they are actually lagging behind in this regard, many small- and medium-size companies in Europe are missing out on myriad opportunities.

“As an export nation, Germany in particular needs multilingual employees”

Companies should send their employees abroad during their apprenticeships.  Photo: ratchanida thippayos © iStockphotoWhat was true five years ago is still true today, in particular for Germany. “Germany is a country that lives off of its exports. We therefore need people in management positions who are able to deal with customers and partners from all over the world,” explains Barbara Fabian, director of the EU Education Policy department at the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce. “To do that, employees don't just need to know foreign languages. They need to know that customers in China, India and even France beat to a different drum.”

Fabian therefore recommends that companies send their employees abroad for extended periods during their apprenticeships. “Fortunately, the Vocational Training Act of 2006 states that trainees are allowed to spend up to three months abroad during their training period,” says Fabian. Fabian herself discovered that motivated youth typically jump at the opportunity of going abroad. “They have the best chance of immersing in a foreign language and culture when they are there. It is also a massive opportunity for personal development.”

Getting small- and medium-size businesses on board

Only three percent of trainees are sent abroad.  Photo: Olga Bogatyrenko © iStockphotoStill, estimates indicate that only three percent of trainees are sent abroad. On top of that, most of them work for large companies. “Large companies often have the appropriate contacts abroad and can send their apprentices to a foreign branch office, for example. They also typically have more efficient human resources development programs. It's different with small- and medium-size businesses,” explains Fabian. “Larger companies also have trainee managers who write the applications for the big European training programs. Small- and medium-size businesses simply don't have the manpower to actively pursue those types of placements.”

Playing catch-up on the international mobility front

Many customers abroad don't just want to buy a product from Germany.  Photo: Kai Chiang © iStockphotoThe mobility consulting program at the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce is an attempt to help more small- and medium-size businesses get involved in these international exchanges. According to Fabian, these companies are still at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to mobility abroad, but they are a very important element of the German economy. “For example, compared to other European nations, Germany has a strong, export-oriented field of medium-size businesses in sectors like mechanical engineering, metallurgy or electrical engineering. But many customers abroad don't just want to buy a machine from Germany. They want an employee to assemble the product on location and come back for maintenance and inspections. In that case it is obviously advantageous if the employees know their way around the country in question and are able to communicate effectively with the people there.”

Janna Degener
works as a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
June 2012

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links


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.