Foreign language skills are essential in the world of work.
More and more employees require at least one foreign language at their workplace. With increasing needs for foreign language skills, target groups and learning goals are changing. This requires teaching approaches that take workplace communication into account right from the start of the foreign language learning process.
Globalization, advances in technology and demographic trends have permanently changed the world of work. Trade relations across national and language borders are leading to more extensive business collaboration, as are digital information and communication media. Goods are being produced regionally on the basis of the division of labour. Production, transport and logistics processes must all be coordinated. All of this requires foreign language communication and interaction. A large variety of different topics and types of text need to be dealt with not only in all of a company’s departments (purchasing, marketing, sales), but also at all of its hierarchical levels. Furthermore, flexible and mobile forms of work such as teleworking and project-based work are becoming increasingly important. For many employees nowadays, it is perfectly normal during the course of their careers to work for periods of time in different international teams, and to switch workplace, company or profession in a way that often involves crossing a (language) border. It therefore comes as no surprise that more and more people need at least one foreign language at their workplace.
Growing communicative requirements
Foreign language requirements have also changed in qualitative terms. Co-determination rights, responsibility for one’s own workplace and (inter-) national quality assurance processes raise the requirements for the receptive and productive communication skills of employees in their native and foreign language(s). As well as being able to deal with oral and written texts, employees need to use analogue and digital media to share information or to communicate. Such requirements can no longer be met solely using the traditional technical language approach that focuses on the structural features of technical language (technical vocabulary and grammar) and a handful of types of technical text. Work-related foreign language teaching prepares employees – no matter which industry they work in – for the changing communicative and intercultural requirements. Because more and more people need one or more foreign language(s) in the world of work, the target groups and learning goals are becoming wider.
Teaching German for vocational purposes can serve as preparation for work (vocational pre-service training), can take place while an employee is already working (in-service training) or can provide people with the skills they need for a particular job (vocational qualification).
Target groups and learning goals
Target groups for vocationally oriented German courses or German teaching can be found in Germany and abroad, at schools and universities, in the school-to-work transition phase and in company training and continuing education programmes. Because the required language skills will depend on individual situations and the technical knowledge and workplace experience already acquired, work-related foreign language teaching should be pragmatic – that is to say relevant in terms of content and reflecting professional requirements – as well as learner- and needs-oriented.
Taking the degree of training of learners into account, a distinction can be made between different forms and learning goals. Foreign language teaching for vocational preparation purposes for example is provided before learners have any technical knowledge and, from A1 level, gives them a broadly-themed introduction to the general language requirements of the world of work. In-service foreign language teaching aims to enable learners to (better) cope with current or future requirements in their job or at their workplace. This takes place at the same time as or following the acquisition of technical knowledge (such as in German courses for nurses). Vocational qualification foreign language teaching provides language training in preparation for acquiring a vocational qualification (cf. Funk/Kuhn 2010).
Everyday language in professional contexts + technical language = German at the workplace
Work-related linguistic actions, not language for specific purposes
The foreign language skills needed in the world of work cannot be ascribed solely to technical or subject-related communication. They are also necessary for integration into the social networks surrounding the workplace which – above all in the case of repeated or longer-term employment in a German-speaking country – can also extend into the personal domain. Work success and satisfaction depend both on the employee’s ability to perform their technical duties properly and on the degree to which they are accepted by their colleagues – something that in many cases is almost impossible to achieve without language proficiency. At the workplace we talk not only about work-related matters, but also about what we did last weekend, about our holidays or about our families. Small talk at the photocopier or at the start of a meeting is likewise important as it contributes to a congenial work atmosphere and tends to precede a discussion of work-related issues. Work-related lesson planning should therefore be based on a holistic approach that relates to communication and work-related linguistic action situations. It is not about equipping learners in a functional manner with restricted technical language skills but about viewing them as people who need German in their everyday lives and job.
Designing work-related forms of communication
Studies of workplace communication show that everyday communication within the work sphere comprises for the most part linguistic actions that are not particularly occupation-specific or technical in language (cf. Grünhage-Monetti/Svet 2013; Kuhn 2014). What is needed above all are basic forms of communication that are taught and practised in foreign language lessons in any case (cf. Kuhn/Sass 2018), such as systematic processing of information from written and oral sources and active participation in conversations (initiating, maintaining and summarizing conversations). Generally applicable professional skills that may be associated with particular actions and situations at the (future) workplace often form part of German lessons and open up opportunities for (work-related) exercises. For example, it is important in almost all areas of life to be able to argue clearly, put forward one’s own viewpoints and interests, or to convince someone of something – be it when discussing whether to increase pocket money in the home environment or when working out team work rosters shortly before the holidays. Developing and weighing up arguments can therefore be applied equally well to work-related situations.
Foreign language learning can potentially serve as job preparation
Since the possibility cannot be ruled out that foreign languages will (in future) be used in professional contexts, all foreign language lessons can potentially serve as preparation for a job. Considering that German in adult education settings is often learnt for work-related reasons, learners may find lessons particularly motivating if they are oriented from the outset towards the world of work and focus on the corresponding linguistic actions. In many cases, the integration of work-related linguistic actions or scenarios (cf. Eilert-Ebke/Sass 2014) can be achieved by making even small adaptations. For instance, typical A1/A2 topics like “arranging dates and meetings” can relate to the cinema, but can be applied equally well to a business dinner or work meeting. In the “at the doctor’s” scenario, sick notes for one’s employer can be dealt with alongside aspects such as one’s medical history. Forms of welcome and introduction that are practised at A1 level can be picked up on again at higher levels and expanded by mentioning areas of work activity and employers, and by handing over business cards. In in-service foreign language teaching, situations can be geared more concretely to authentic situations, such as the support and care of patients in courses for nurses (cf. Ransberger 2018). In this way, lessons that are based on the interests, goals and needs of learners and relate to linguistic actions can form a good foundation for communication in professional contexts in Germany and abroad.