Foreign Languages in the Workplace The Job Profile is Decisive

The significance of foreign language abilities in the working world is definitely on the rise.
The significance of foreign language abilities in the working world is definitely on the rise. | Photo: dimmu © 123RF

In today's professional world, knowledge of foreign languages is an indispensable skill and a must-have on any resume. Still, studies show that while good foreign language skills play an increasingly important role in the workplace, every situation is different.

Every sixth working German needs foreign language skills for his/her job; every third gets by with basic competence; and English is still the most commonly required foreign language. These are just some of the results of a survey of employees in Germany carried out in 2006 by the BIBB (Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training) and the BAuA (Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health).

English is still foreign language number 1

Seven years ago, only 10 percent of employed Germans indicated that they needed more than basic foreign language skills in their workplace. The figures from 2012 have just been analyzed, and Anja Hall from the BIBB is convinced that the significance of foreign language abilities is definitely on the rise. “The professional world is becoming more and more international, on the one hand, and on the other, the demand for highly qualified personnel is increasing. The more advanced a position becomes, the more important these foreign language skills become,” explains Hall. Among the people surveyed who needed no specific degree for their position, only three percent needed knowledge of a foreign language, while 40 percent of employees in positions that require a university degree are expected to have foreign language skills. According to the BIBB and BAuA study, these foreign-language abilities are particularly important in commercial enterprises, hospitality and the restaurant business.

Among the people surveyed who need a foreign language at work, 93 percent of them are expected to speak English. Other languages are typically expected in academia, health and caregiving jobs, social work, hospitality and the restaurant business. Every third person was required to speak French while Russian, Turkish, Spanish, Polish and other languages follow after that.

Foreign languages not as vital as technical knowledge or social skills

A nationwide survey carried out by the HIS-HF (Higher Education Information System) confirms that university graduates are very frequently required to possess solid foreign language skills. “About half of all university and college graduates indicated in our survey that knowledge of foreign languages is important or very important in their everyday professional lives. And this has been a relatively consistent result for many years now,” says Kolja Briedis of the HIS-HF. According to Briedis, other things like technical skills, business competence, social skills and the ability to self-organize are seen by many more of the surveyed individuals as important (70 to 90 percent).

With regard to foreign-language skills, there were major differences between the various professional arenas. “Foreign languages play an important role for nearly 75 percent of engineers and almost 90 percent of natural scientists. That is surely due to the fact that the business world has become increasingly international these days and many natural scientists spend their initial professional years in the post-doctoral period where they read international literature and take part in international conferences.” Foreign languages are less important in teaching positions, educational sciences, social work, psychology and in medicine.

Dialect instead of a foreign language

The foreign languages that are in demand, and the skill levels required, depend partly on the overall job description and partly on the industry and geographical scope of the company in question. “In the export department of a mid-size German company that deals with China, South America and the USA, you will almost certainly be required to have foreign language skills. In a small-town affiliate of a pharmacy chain, on the other hand, you may just need a good grasp of the local dialect,” says Beate Raabe from the ZAV, a government agency responsible for foreign job placements. When selecting candidates, employers measure the importance of foreign languages and other skills in the job description depending on the profile of the position to be filled.

Legal considerations are of less importance here, according to Raabe, but sometimes official approval of international academic degrees in foreign languages is required. “If someone with a foreign degree wants to apply for certain segments of the public health sector, for example, he/she will have to prove a certain level of job-related German skills to be accepted. For doctors, the B2 level is required while nurses need either B1 or B2.”