The French and German perspective on using language skills to develop business overseas

The importance of language knowledge for success in international business is becoming increasingly apparent, and we have noted in other blogs how vital it is to integrate languages into your export strategy.

Much has been written about the problems the UK market faces because language skills are not being developed in line with the needs of businesses, so we decided to ask our in-house French and German colleagues, Marion and Katharina, to tell us about how businesses maximise language skills to develop business overseas.

French Perspective

In France, companies struggle to develop their business abroad and to export, because of a lack of linguistic skill within the workforce.

When surveyed, only 41% of French companies said they considered linguistic skills to be important or very important, compared with a European average of 61%. This lack of appreciation for the importance of languages is mirrored in their recruitment strategies, as 21% of French companies believed linguistic skills to be an important requirement for graduates, against 31% of companies from other European countries. Moreover, French companies are failing to realise the potential of employing graduates with both linguistic skills and international experience in terms of developing their business abroad. Only 17% of French companies hire graduates from elsewhere within Europe, compared with 28% of German companies.

Because of an historical policy of monolingualism, linked to a desire to ‘protect’ the French language, as demonstrated by the much-publicised Toubon Law, just 40% of French companies have a multilingual export policy, whereas 63% of German companies have recognised the importance of talking to customers in their own language.

However, times are changing. In a context of European construction and globalisation, the French Ministry of Education decided to implement additional courses of spoken English with the result that now 97% of French students aged 11-18 learn English.

To foster an atmosphere of multilingualism, and to develop skills for future generations, French students now start learning a foreign language from the age of 6, adding a second language from 13 years old. The French government is making a real effort to improve students’ language skills as part of a common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

German Perspective

Germany is recognised as the world export champion after China, with exports earning approximately $1,337 trillion in 2010. Such success is not the result of luck, but comes through solid manufacturing and business strategies, combined with a strong linguistic policy.

Proof of this can be seen in the fact that 70% of German companies use foreign languages on a regular basis, with a third of employees communicating regularly in a language other than German. However, companies are not just relying on prior knowledge of languages in their staff, as half of all companies are investing in language learning, by encouraging employees to take language courses on a regular basis, using modern technology, such as e-learning, to make these courses as accessible as possible. And the problems that might arise due to cultural differences have not been ignored by a third of German companies, who are working to expand cross-cultural competences amongst their employees.

In terms of recruitment, knowledge of English is now required for almost all positions (not just for senior management or sales roles) across a wide variety of business sectors, including the food industry, basic materials industry, metal and electronics industries, service sector, tourism industry, hotel industry, wholesale trade and finance industry. For job-seekers, the chances of getting employed are better if you speak at least 2 languages, with French and Spanish being most often required after English.

Fortunately the skills of the working population match the demands set by businesses, as 40% of Germans speak at least one language other than German, and 30% speak more than one foreign language. And the importance of languages and language-learning is not just recognised by businesses, with 96% of Germans sharing the opinion that it is very hard (or even impossible) to find a job without a good command of English.


France related data:

Article “Des PME françaises en mal d’international”, from Le Monde, 2011

Article “Toubon Law”, from Wikipedia

Article “Renforcement de l’apprentissage de l’anglais oral”, from the French Ministry of Education website, 2011

Article “Les langues vivantes étrangères ”, from the French Ministry of Education website, 2011

Report “Employers’ perception of graduate employability”, from the European Commission, 2010

Report “Multilinguism boosts European competitiveness”, from the European Commission, 2007

Germany related data:

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