Integration debate

Business Success Through Linguistic Diversity

A lot of companies target customers who are not just German speaking.  Photo: Jacob Wackerhausen © iStockphotoA lot of companies target customers who are not just German speaking.  Photo: Jacob Wackerhausen © iStockphotoIn the “Charter for Diversity” initiative, companies undertake to appreciate the diverse potential of their staff and the needs of their customers. That includes cultural aspects, one of which is identification with a language.

Gülcan Urul is the proprietor of a specialist optician’s shop in the north of Dortmund. The young Turk’s business success draws specifically on the fact that many immigrant families live in this district. In order to appeal to all customers, regardless of their age and origins, she makes sure that her staff have language skills and cultural competence. She advertises on her website by saying that her customers can be advised not only in German, but also in Turkish, Polish, Russian, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Spanish, English and French. The concept pays off. Some 60 per cent of her customers are of Turkish origin and she has succeeded in attracting Turkish clients from neighbouring districts and cities. Urul has also succeeded in attracting more and more customers with other mother tongues. The young entrepreneur even received an award from the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Dortmund for her business start-up ideas.

Immigrants are an attractive group of customers

Gülcan Urul's specialist optician’s shop;  Photo: © Brillenwelt Optik UrulAs in Dortmund, cultural diversity among the population is the norm in many regions of Germany. According to a 2008 publication by the Federal Government Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration, some 15 million families in Germany come from immigrant families, of whom the 2.5 million people of Turkish background alone have buying power of some 17 billion euro, equivalent to the buying power of the whole of the Saarland. So it is no wonder that Gülcan Urul is just one of many entrepreneurs whose language policy is aimed at precisely this group of customers. A look at the best practice examples of the Charta for Diversity business initiative shows that companies of all sizes, from intercultural tax advisors and culturally sensitive care services to large motor vehicle manufacturers such as Volkswagen or Daimler, very consciously target customers who are not just German speaking. And public institutions such as hospitals and police stations have also recognised that they reach citizens better if they talk to them in the right language.

Tapping linguistic potential

Charter for Diversity;  Photo: © Charta der VielfaltIn order to be able to meet their customers’ language needs, employers are relying increasingly on staff with the relevant language skills. In large companies or institutions employing people from different cultures, this rethinking can lead to a new appreciation of employees’ language skills. An example is the University Hospital in Mannheim, where an internal pool of interpreters has been set up to improve communication with patients and members of their families. Doctors, nurses and other staff were simply asked to indicate their language skills. The result was that 130 staff with a total of some 40 foreign languages said they were willing to interpret at short notice in order to ease communication with patients or members of their families.

Other companies and public institutions, like Gülcan Urul, first have to recruit appropriately qualified staff. In doing so, they often look for trainees or staff who themselves come from an immigrant family and have the right linguistic background. It is also not unusual for employers to offer opportunities to improve their (specialist) language skills in German or the other languages if necessary. Because the police, for example, like to use officers with the right language skills in districts with a large number of foreign residents, police schools’ selection procedures are aimed at attracting applicants from a migration background and place less emphasis on weaker German language skills. Instead, these skills are improved in language courses during training. And, in cooperation with Ludwig Maximilian University, the city of Munich has developed a new staff selection procedure for young staff that assesses multilingualism as a plus factor.

Opportunities for human resources policies that value language diversity

Language diversity also offer general social opportunities.  Photo: Paul Kooi © iStockphotoHuman resources policies that value diversity not only bring companies and institutions a wider customer base but other benefits, too. According to the campaign’s website, a poll of 155 Charter for Diversity companies stated that in around 87 per cent of cases, active diversity management increased their staff’s creativity and capacity for innovation. This development also brings more general social opportunities. Children from immigrant families still have particular difficulty in gaining good school leaving qualifications or finding an apprenticeship and even immigrants with a degree are more likely to be affected by unemployment. Recognising and using these peoples’ language and cultural skills opens up new perspectives on the labour market.

Janna Degener
works as a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
March 2011

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