Friday, November 5, 2010

How Multilingual Are Europeans? Observations From tekom

I wrote this on the train back to Vienna, Austria, after attending the tekom conference in Wiesbaden, Germany, for the past couple of days. A word about the trains here: I was sitting at a table in a high-speed train with WiFi internet access (unfortunately not free), travelling about the distance from New York to Montreal for around US$50. Quite a number of conference participants were at Wiesbaden’s main train station tonight -- even people from the surrounding towns who in the U.S. would probably have driven to the conference. Seems the Germans (and other Europeans) are on to something when it comes to reducing travel’s environmental impact ...

tekom is the technical communications conference in Germany, held twice a year -- in Berlin in the Spring and Wiesbaden in the Fall. It had quite a large translation component, including more than 60 translation agencies exhibiting at the fair held concurrently with the conference. As with most international events, the conference languages were the local language (i.e., German) and English. This lead to a panel composed entirely of German native speakers discussing the topic at hand with each other in English for the benefit of audience members who don’t speak German. Similarly, I overheard several informal conversations in English where clearly none of the participants were English native speakers.

English is not only the lingua franca at global events, it has become the official corporate language even at companies headquartered in non-English-speaking countries. A conference participant from Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, for example, said that all documentation for company products is originally written in English and then translated into any number of languages, including German and French, the two major official Swiss languages. His colleague was Rumanian and the two conversed in English with each other during the dinner we attended. The other two women who joined our table were from the Czech Republic, so the rest of the dinner conversation was in English, as well.

Such an international mix makes sense at a global conference, but I found that at least within the technical communications field many companies have become much more mixed in terms of nationalities than they were until not that long ago. I spoke with a representative of the German multinational Bosch’s language division who was from India. That conversation took place in German since the representative is based near Stuttgart, Germany, and speaks excellent German. Another language services provider, OmniLingua, has offices in Germany and Greece, among other countries. I spoke to the company’s representative in German, but was asked to forward my information to the company’s vendor manager, who is Greek. That e-mail is to be in English (I asked).

I found time and again that linguistic preferences could not be assumed based on a person’s -- or his/her company’s -- name. As movement within the European Union increases, many companies are becoming more polyglot, including employees from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. At least among the educated professionals who attend such conferences, fluency in the company’s corporate language, in addition to English and one’s native language, as well as knowledge of the language of the country/region where one lives, is assumed.

In addition, professionals are expected to understand English-language literature relating to their profession. That professional use of English, however, also has its drawbacks. My brother (who still lives in Austria) recently noticed at an international youth event that while his professional English vocabulary is fairly extensive, he lacks basic vocabulary for other areas of life. (In case you are curious, he produces precision brass instruments for professional musicians.)

Compare such assumptions with the fact that many U.S. professionals only speak English, with maybe a basic knowledge of whichever language they took in college for a couple of years (likely Spanish or French). On the other hand, if all English speakers learned German to the extent that German speakers learn English, nobody would bother to translate German documentation. Where would I find clients then?

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