by Hermann Kracke
So does a foreign service provider in any case need to speak German to do business here successfully as, for instance, also NASSCOM, the Indian IT trade association, generally suggests to its members interested in the German market?
Or is English - the international language of business - sufficient and German more of a ‘good to have’ in Germany as the local language in other places?
These questions I have been asked a lot. And my answers in this case usually are not as straightforward as you would perhaps expect them from this blog.
Here is my attempt to give you some input on this topic: How important is speaking German when getting into this market?
The German Statesman’s view
The headline above is a quote ascribed to former German chancellor Willy Brandt. I have heard it for the first time this week only but I instantly liked it for its implied customer focused attitude I always endorse. Customer is king and obviously a German partner, too, will appreciate your effort to understand a bit of German.
I would today, however, not be as strict as Willy Brandt (“müssen Sie” = “you have to”) as a lack of German language skills will no longer stop you if you otherwise have a solid business case and value proposition.
Let's look at some pros ...
Employee development and other good reasons
Skills in any major language obviously are a core qualification in business - generally, no question. Actually and perhaps even more important, a decent command of a foreign language enables learners to make personal experiences in another country otherwise hardly possible or to truly connect to people abroad in a meaningful way.
There are a number of other very good reasons as well to learn German in particular - such as the country’s overall economic impact, better networking opportunities here and in four other European countries or its rich cultural and scientific heritage.
Training staff in German vs. integrating German professionals
It is also true that German language skills may help establish a healthy business relationship in Germany in the first place by building confidence and signaling long-term commitment. It shows your extra mile mentality because there usually is no quick way of acquiring German skills.
You’d either need to teach your people proper German or find and hire affordable German professionals and try to instill your culture into them - which would - my experience - both take quite a bit of time.
Anybody who has herself, for instance, seriously tried to get the, at first glance simple, concept of German articles (“der”, “die”, “das”) and cases (hello, ‘Dativ!’, good old friend) right - or in the other scenario train a German sales manager in say New Delhi in just a few weeks - will confirm.
To quote an example
I have worked with a couple of Indian colleagues who speak really good, comprehensible German. A few of them have even become remarkably fluent on the job - but that’s after years of resolute study and there have always been others, too, who despite of their good intentions and the company’s incentives did not manage to push through the obstacles you hit at some point when learning a completely new language.
That is to say - it is very possible to train people sufficiently in German but it’s not a small investment in both, resources and time.
Likewise, there are German professionals who work exceptionally well with Indian companies and have really made an effort to dig deeper in South Asian cultures but there do not seem to be so many of them and you may not find suitable personnel quickly. German unemployment at record low rates currently does not make it easier.
and Cons ...
However, English in Germany today also is a very common means of communication, evidently in IT, in outbound travel, in a more multicultural society and most importantly: in business.
I’ll quickly look at each one of these areas now before arriving at my personal conclusion:
The German tourist
You may have noticed this yourself: It’s quite hard to travel internationally without running into Germans on vacation.
Pretty much wherever you go a group of pale legged Germans in their cargo shorts carrying some high-end photo equipment will already be there ;-).
With an average of six weeks of holiday per year and enough disposable income Germans love to travel and they usually spend their time off in other countries.
German residents - on a per head basis - still spend more on tourism than any other nation. In fact, for many years this was even the case in absolute terms despite the country’s much smaller population than, for example, China or the United States.
Although some countries have adjusted to this trend, by and large, Germans resort to speaking English to make themselves heard on their foreign travels.
Culture blend and required subject
In Germany roughly 20% of the population has a migration background. Even if a high percentage of these do speak German as their second language and for many who don’t - English isn’t their native language either - it is safe to say that Germany today is a more multicultural, multilingual society than it used to be for much of the last century.
Moreover, most Germans below age 50 have learned some practical English as a foreign language at school for a number of years, usually for many years. And more often than not, they are used to speak English at work or in their private life at least occasionally.
Germans just love to hear themselves speak English
Many in Germany I feel even strive to practice their English whenever the situation arises. A group of Germans will in my experience quickly and deliberately switch to English as soon as one non-German speaking person joins the discussion. And so much so that I have heard expats or other language learners complain about it for preventing them getting to practice the language for their part.
Wir müssen durch den clutter breaken
That the German youth is anyhow very fond of English you can see from the awful lot of Denglish, the increasingly strong influx of English or pseudo-English vocabulary into everyday German, out there today.
German companies and their global ambitions
Finally, Germany, as you’ll know is a very export oriented country. Even though no longer the number one champion in total exports in the world - it is still among the top 3 and far ahead of the world’s fourth largest exporter.
Many companies, even of small and medium size, and their leaders will actually be used to doing business in English. Maybe not always fluent and often speaking with a strong German accent but any case functional enough to also conduct business in an international set up.
Now what about buying vs. selling and the wise words of our former chancellor above?
He has a point that you can as a buyer generally expect a more customer centered attitude from your provider and that would include making an effort to understand your customer’s language.
At least for the kind of services processes in joint, rather long-term projects and contracts I usually deal with though - the model of outsourcing cooperation today is one of on-going partnership and the only way to make that work sustainably really is the much heralded win-win-scenario.
In other words, if your customer in the longer run does not benefit at least as much as you do from your partnership - then your German language expertise or professional German sales force will not help you succeed.
If you, in contrast, manage to develop your relationship with a German client into a solid partnership or - at initial stages - seriously approach a prospect with this aim in mind - your German language skills will be welcome and helpful but probably not make or break your German business endeavor, either.
So does all this mean you no longer have to think about German language skills at all? Of course not.
Learning your customer’s language is a great way to immerse yourself in the culture of your target destination. If you can dedicate enough resources to it - it may help to build even stronger partnerships.
In sales it may open doors for you, or in some industries initially be a better way to get noticed but I would today not turn away from the German market just for fearing the German language might be too much of a barrier.
One big caveat though
That is not to say that communication would generally not be important. Quite the contrary - I do not know any business one could build without communicating clearly and transparently with the customer in some form.
So if I’m arguing you should not let yourself be discouraged by a lack of German language skills - that does not mean that any shared medium of communication would be dispensable.
If your projects or account managers are not fluent in German it’s one thing but then they have to be able to communicate articulately and confidently in English all the more. There is no discussion about that.
Have you yourself considered learning German? Or how do you deal with German language requirements in Germany? What have your partners been telling you about it? I’d love to hear your views!