English may still be the lingua franca in the business world, but students like 20-year-old Lisa Sprowls are beginning to believe that learning a bit of German for the workplace will aid them in potential dealings with one of America’s most important trading partners.
“It’s a course that doesn’t teach just grammar or vocabulary,” she says. “This course is really useful and helpful for the future.”
Sprowls, who attends the American University in Washington, DC, is part of a growing trend of economics and business students taking such courses, says Katja Fullard from Germany’s cultural and language advocacy organisation, the Goethe Institute.
“The demand for business German courses is growing continuously,” says Fullard, who runs such courses at the Goethe Institute’s Chicago branch. “The US can’t invest in Germany and foster economic relationships without dealing with the German language.”
Outside of the European Union, the United States is Germany’s biggest trade partner, she points out.
Business German instructor at the American University, Tanja Burton, says her courses are usually full, and she isn’t surprised.
“German is the most spoken language in Europe,” she says. “The students know this. Furthermore Germany plays an important role in the world economy.”
Students seem to be motivated by a need to distinguish themselves in an increasingly brutal job market.
“There are many German companies with offices in America,” student Sprowls says. “If I can speak German and have finished a business German course, it will certainly help me if I apply there.”
Claudia Wurll, Human resources director for German engine mechanical engineering firm Grenzebach, which has offices in Newnan, Georgia, said her company would be thrilled to see more applicants who speak German.
While the company’s official language on site is English, their entire network runs in German, she explains, saying that knowledge of the language helps new employees immensely.
“When I look through applications, German skills are the most important thing to me,” she says. But only 10 percent of applicants can offer this skill, she adds.
“It would certainly be nice if more applicants could speak German,” she says.
Making the effort to learn the language is likely to help even professionals who are already mid-career.
Patent lawyer Warren Zitlau, 42, travels to Germany several times a year to meet with partner firms in Frankfurt, Düsseldorf and Munich, and decided to take up German courses at the Goethe Institute a few years ago.
“Even though I can’t speak much yet, my German colleagues value it so much that I continue to learn German,” he says.
While meetings are generally still held in English, he says that speaking German during short conversations outside the boardroom improves their working relationship.
“German is becoming more and more attractive for Americans,” he says.