Language, Leadership, and Business

Financial Times (4/12) has an interesting article on the use of language in German business. Apparently, many German executives feel that it is easier to talk about things like “growth and ambition” in English than in German. “Imagine I want to say to some people: ‘Let’s go for it, and let’s do it together,'” says the head of a Munich-based consulting firm. “I can say this in English, and people will listen, but if I say it in German it takes up too many words, and (the phrasing) is impossible.”

A machine-tool CEO also remarks that many German words and phrases have been debased by their use first by the Nazi regime and then by the East German Communist regime. As an example, he uses the word Freundschaft(friendship) which he says under the Communist regime had political implications.

As a result of such considerations, some German executives are holding business discussions in English even when all the participants are native German speakers.

Others say that this is all pretty much nonsense and that a good speaker can get his ideas across equally well in either language.

Is there anything to this theory about the differential effectiveness of the languages? I took 2 years of high school German and more in college, but don’t really feel educated enough in the language to have an opinion. Would love to hear from bilingual German/English speakers on this one.

12 thoughts on “Language, Leadership, and Business”

  1. I’m a Brit that lived in Germany for 5 years. I got to be pretty fluent while I was there. I think it’s perfectly possible to express the same ideas in either language. However, different languages do lend themselves to different modes of thought.

    But I think the main reason for this is the ‘cool’ factor. Germans think that speaking English is cool, so expressing new ideas in English simply makes them sound better. This reminds me of the use of French phrases by English speakers that want to sound sophisticated.

    The other thing to bear in mind is that it is perfectly normal for Germans to conduct meetings in English because English is both the international business and technical language.

  2. Makes sense to me. Although I don’t speak a word of German, as a native English speaker I’ve found that there are certainly things that can be more clearly said in French. For instance, different types of personal relationships are more easily distinguished than in English, and a certain sexual ambiguity that is present in English is thereby removed.

    But on the other hand French lacks the progressive moods, and can’t express certain phrases that can use pronouns in English.

    So just like with computer languages, where if you are basically ‘Turing complete’, any one is theoretically capable of computing the exact same things, but it will be easier in certain languages than others to express your solution to the problem, the same can be said for natural languages.

    So I think that you while you ultimately could get the same shade of meaning accross in any language, certain things will be easier or harder depending on how well the language in use and the concept match up.

  3. Ich kan nür ein bichen auf Deutsch sprechen, aber Ich denke das Chris recht hat.

    Business is like any human interaction. Its successful conduct depends on the imagination and charisma of persons, not the language they choose to use.

    But, hey, it is hip to speak english now. That’s pretty cool to this Aussie-Anglo.

  4. German does make it harder to get thoughts across clearly than other European languages. If you want to express yourself concisely you do have an advantage if you English instead, unless you are able to bend the grammatical rules of German without quite breaking them.

    The problem with German speakers who follow the rules to the last letter is their insistence to break verbs into parts, and then put one part at the beginning, and the other at the end of a long sentence.

    Example (from a reporter talking about the results of a boxing match on the radio):

    ‘Schulz hat, nach sechs Runden in denen er schwere Schläge einstecken mußte, die sein Gesicht zeichneten und beinahe seine Nase brachen, da sein Gegner schneller auf den Füßen war als er, aber während dessen er dennoch gelegentlich eine gute Chance zu haben schien, seinen Gegner außer Gefecht zu setzen, den Kampf verloren.


    ‘Schulz has, after six rounds in which he had to take heavy blows, which bloodied his face and nearly broke his nose, for his oppoenent was faster on his feet than he, but nevertheless occasionally seemed to have had a good chance to knock him out even so, lost the fight’.

    The parts of the verb (has lost, ‘hat verloren’ in German) in bold. In German this actually is correct, if anything but elegant.

    It’s infuriating to listen to, for you need to catch every single word to learn what happened. Journalits wrting for newspapersa and magazines are no better, for their longwinded sentences are frequently hardly comprehensible. And of course readers and listeners are influenced by this kind of nonsense.

    In German it’s unusual to put the verb at the front of the sentence, but that is exactly what you need to make the sentence I wrote above easy to understand.

    It’s so easy:

    ‘Schulz verlor den Kampf’ (Schulz lost the fight); and the details later.

    But they simply won’t do it. When I’m in a irriatble mood I really do think that having German as a native language should make people eligible to collect disabilty insurance.

    Btw, Mark Twain thought along these lines, too: The Awful German Language

  5. That should have been ‘If you want to express yourself concisely you do have an advantage if you use English instead’

    Btw, if you work for a multinational corporation, there’s a good reason for Germans to speak English during meetings (even if the multi happens to be German, and every person attending the meeting is German): The minutes have to be in English, so that everybody can understand them.

  6. While you can express any concept in any language, some languages communicate some concepts easier than do others.

    The way in which a language creates new words, for example, influence how easily the native speakers could generate new words for novel concepts. For example, both German and Japanese are agglutinative languages i.e. they create new words by combining existing words together. Both languages can easily generate new words and terms to describe new technologies. Both parent cultures are noted for both technological innovation and in managing rapid change. By contrast, Latin languages tend to generate new terms by allegory which makes their descriptions of technology less precise and possible makes their parent cultures more conservative. (English, being a hybrid of Germanic and Latin languages does both).

    I think languages are evolved features just like flippers or feathers. Each language is adapted to its local environment. Languages which have more experience communicating certain concepts, such as technology or political freedom, well have a richer toolkit for dealing with the concepts than languages which don’t have that experience.

    In the contemporary era, English has more experience dealing with both the technology and the organizational issues of the business world. I think that is one reason, beyond being a mere standard, that it is used so often. Germans may in fact find it easier to express many critical concepts in English than in German.

  7. I grew up in Austria, so German is my first language; English the second. I’ve lived in the U.S. for over 16 years now, so my English is now better than my German.
    I think there’s something to the theory that English is more expressive than German. Three issues come to mind:
    (1) English has a vastly larger vocabulary than German. That’s not a weakness of German but a strength of English: it’s a mingling of (precursor) German and (precursor) French, and the social layering at the time (Norman domination of Saxon populace) kept the vocabularies from merging (as usually happens). Thus, there are generally more synonyms and near-equivalent terms in English than in German (or most other languages). This makes English shorter and (given similar sentence length) more expressive.
    (2) English has lost more grammatical baggage than German (or German has preserved more of it than English, if you prefer). This makes for higher combinatorial power in English: you can use the same words in more (correct) ways to express an idea without having to add grammatical fillers. German is definitely more “awkward” in this regard than English, though I couldn’t say which one’s more unusual in this respect.
    (3) The gap between colloquial and formal-correct German seems bigger than in English. That is, in German it takes more words and more convoluted sentence structure to make a colloquial sentence fragment correct and “high” (Hochdeutsch = High German, the formal variant of the language, sort of like BBC English but worse) than in English.
    Beyond the putative merits of the languages, there’s also a cultural element here: German work culture is very consensual (oriented towards – at least the appearance of – compromise, shared agreement, etc.) Meanwhile American culture is perceived as confrontational, result-oriented, dog-eat-dog. Lanaguage does influence acceptable thought, so German managers may well think that using English allows them to broach controversial issues that would be (culturally) awkward in German.
    — perry

  8. Perry, My hat is off to you. To see you write that English is not your first language is stunning for me. For starters, your vocabulary is exceptional, as is your grammar. You write and express yourself more effectively than many (most?) native English speakers. This is, no doubt, testament to both your intellect and your hard work and determination to learn the language. Bravo. I’m very impressed.

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