12.2.1 What does it mean to be competent in another language?

Foreign language competence is a key competence for successful communication with people who have a different cultural background.

The required competent in another language depends on the context in which the language is going to be used: having small talk in a restaurant with a business partner and a detailed product presentation to a large audience require different levels of foreign language competence.
But be careful! Foreign language skills should never be regarded separately from other social competencies.
Imaging you are a German executive making a presentation to delegates from a Portuguese company with representatives from Romania. Your success in receiving the order may not only depend on your perfect presentation but also your ability to converse with the delegates at the dinner following the presentation on topics of interest to them – appreciation of Romanian Wine, latest victory for local football team Benfica Lisbon and the city’s monuments. You may not be able to contribute much to the conversation if you have “only” attended a course in technical English ….

What does this mean? We need the skills to fulfil our task. A service technician, for example, will have to master the technical terms but never forget the importance of everyday English for an informal conversation or to acquire some knowledge of and a real interest in the partner (country) – these might be more decisive factors than perfect business English.

If, during a dinner a staff member can only speak about business, he will not feel at ease. It is therefore necessary for staff to be proficient in general language as well as the specific purpose language relating to their job1.

You may ask why we keep referring to English. Well, we would also like to see a wider range of languages used for international communication. When we regard demographic development, Arabic or Chinese perhaps will be dominating languages in future.
English is the so called “lingua franca” and is used and understood by a large number of people, and this will be the situation for the foreseeable future. Besides starting (secretly) to learn Chinese, always be prepared to say some words in the national language of your business partner. This will be considered as an expression of politeness and interest. There are tendencies in large companies not to negotiate in English but in the partner’s language as this has been proved to be more successful.
We hope that the input so far has motivated you to get to know even more about the importance of foreign language competence in innovation. So let’s read on …


1 BASF (extract of a statement of Jochen Muskalla, Quality Management Services at the LINGUA Symposium, Saarbrücken, 1994)