Languages required for business contacts with Germany

Margit Breckle,
Hanken School of Economics,
Vaasa, Finland

Joachim Schlabach,
University of Turku, Turku School of Economics,
Turku, Finland

International contacts – and especially international business contacts – are commonplace nowadays and a matter of routine. But which languages are used for communication between companies at home and abroad – especially between Finnish and foreign workers? Is it not the case that today, English as a Lingua Franca is used for all purposes and that this one – supposedly – common language is sufficient? How, for example, is language managed in relationships between Finland and Germany, i.e. in the relationship with Finland’s most important trading partner? This question was the starting point for the LangBuCom study, in which we surveyed employees in Finnish companies and organisations who deal with German-speaking partners at work. The study can be seen in the context of other language needs analyses that have been conducted since the 1990s, especially in Finland. Language needs analyses are a common tool for the professionalisation of language teaching. Such studies are the basis for the development of specialised language teaching and today, they serve to further develop and ensure the quality of teaching in business communication.

In 2016, for its language needs analysis, LangBuCom conducted an online survey using a questionnaire with 23 open and closed questions. It was distributed through various channels such as Finpro (now Business Finland), The German Chambers of Commerce Abroad (AHK-Finland) and Facebook and resulted in a response of 272 completed questionnaires. Most of the responses came from employees in Finland working in SMEs and mostly from the middle and upper management. Their primary language was mostly Finnish, although some indicated Swedish and others German. Almost everyone had knowledge of four or more languages. Most of them used these four languages Finnish, English, German and Swedish at work. Other languages like French, Russian or Spanish did not play a major role in this group.

The survey revealed some interesting results. In their contact with German partners, the Finnish employees used two languages, English and German. This may not be surprising at first sight, as it is commonplace that very few people outside Finland speak Finnish. However, the results become more interesting when you take a closer look at the answers. The questions were divided into written and oral language use – this differentiation was used to provide important information for the development of language courses –, and, as it can be seen, English is used slightly more frequently than German, with the dominance of English being somewhat stronger in written communication. However, the answers do not show ‘either or’: One cannot assume that Matti always speaks nothing but English with his German partners and Nina always speaks only German. It is rather ’both and’, because only a small percentage of the respondents indicated that they never use German or never use English in contacts with their German partners.

An important point concerning languages were the individual respondents’ opinions and attitudes, especially regarding language-related opportunities and challenges. Most respondents indicated that they liked to use German, somewhat fewer preferred English, and some avoided German because of their assumedly limited knowledge of the language. However, the majority saw a need for German.

In terms of economic importance, a large majority of respondents believed that companies have better business opportunities as a result of having German-speaking employees. These employees also usually have better recruitment and promotion opportunities.

In this context, the perceived changes regarding the importance of German in business life were also of interest. Only a few respondents thought that German had lost some of its importance in recent years. With a view to the future, the vast majority thought that its importance will remain the same or will even increase. This may well be the case in view of both foreign trade figures – Germany was Finland’s most important trading partner in 2019 – and the numerous Finnish-German business connections, such as Konecranes–Demag and Fortum–Uniper or smaller ones like Oras–Hansa. The numerous Finnish-German business connections also include for instance the German companies in Finland like Bayer or Meyer, both of which have their largest non-German production facilities in Turku, and the well-established trading groups Lidl and Bauhaus, which as a matter of course require their management to have German language skills.

However, the companies’ demand for employees with sufficient knowledge of German now seems to be higher than the supply on the labour market. This is one result of surveys conducted by AHK-Finland among German companies in Finland. According to the most recent survey, prior to Corona, 42 % of companies stated that they had difficulty finding staff with sufficient German language skills. The need is even higher in the logistics sector.

In contrast to this, however, the number of German learners has developed in quite a different direction. Apart from English, increasingly fewer foreign languages are being taught in Finnish schools. This predicament has also been the subject of complaints by ETLA and politicians for a long time and is now of concern at the highest level of educational responsibility. However, the reforms that have been set in motion, such as introducing the first foreign language in the first grade, combined with the recommendation to deliberately not offer only English at this level (introduced 2019–20), are not really being implemented. Most municipal school authorities, even those in such supposedly international cities as Turku, are sticking to their previous policy and still offering predominantly English as the only first foreign language in schools. Genuine and prompt reforms and achievements are needed so that future employees are able to meet the language skill requirements for business contacts with Germany.

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