Germany is the powerhouse of the European economy, making German an important language in international business.
German-speaking business build cars, fly around the globe, develop medicines, make delicious food and drinks and transform our digital lives.
It’s time for you to get in on it.
What Is “Business German”?
Let’s get something straight: In order to become fluent in “business German,” you have to build fluency in regular German first. No one in the office will take you seriously if you don’t get your cases right, use the correct adjective endings or pronounce things properly.
The problem is that “regular German” classes often focus on everyday encounters at first, with perhaps some literature thrown in at the higher levels. It’s useful, and you’ll learn a lot from this approach, but when it comes time to write your German Lebenslauf (resume) or attend a German Vorstellungsgespräch (job interview), neither your ability to order a sandwich nor your knowledge of Goethe is going to get you the job.
This is where you need to go above and beyond what’s covered in traditional German classes. If you want to speak like a German businessperson, you’re going to need to learn business German.
How Can You Learn Business German?
If you’re lucky, you might have access to business German classes at your local college, language school or Goethe Institute. Alternatively, you can travel to a German-speaking country, take some business German classes and immerse yourself in the language and culture before trying to apply for jobs.
However, these opportunities are not realistic for most people. Don’t despair. It is possible to learn some business German on your own.
Dialog Beruf (Dialogue Career) is a well-known series of textbooks that is often used in business German classes. If you are dedicated, you can use these for self-studying. Sometimes the books cover industries that may seem obscure or irrelevant to you. If it doesn’t seem important to your goals or your line of work, skip it! Focus instead on the more relevant vocabulary, grammar and cultural context that these books provide.
If you want to set concrete goals for yourself, you can try to take the official WiDaF (Deutsch als Fremdsprache in der Wirtschaft: Business German as a Foreign Language) exam. Many employers and schools will look for documented proof of C1 fluency or higher, and this exam is a great way to show that you’re not just fluent, you’re business fluent.
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Business German Vocabulary to Impress Your International Office
What are the kinds of information that distinguish business German from general German? Here are some examples:
1. Formal address: Sie, not du
German has two forms of the pronoun “you:” the formal Sie and the informal du. In business relationships, you should always stick to Sie. Often, colleagues and clients will specifically tell you if or when they feel comfortable allowing you to call them du.
This declaration might occur when you first meet, it might take some time or it might never happen at all. Everything depends on your type of organization and your relationship to the other person.
2. Applying for the job: Your Bewerbungsbogen (application documents)
Applying for a job with a German company is as easy as sending off a direct translation of your English resume, right? Wrong.
First of all, your resume contains all kinds of cultural information that might not translate. If you’re from the United States, you probably went to a high school, not a German Gymnasium. But are the two terms close enough for you to use in translation? I think not—the two institutions are part of two very different education systems. But you should “translate” your grades, if you include them on your documents. A 4.0 GPA sounds great to an American, but to a German, that’s a D average.
Second, a German Lebenslauf (resume) often contains information seen as irrelevant or taboo in the states. It’s common to attach a photo and mention your Familienstand (family status: married or single), age and citizenship status, as well as hobbies.
Finally, the Lebenslauf is never enough on its own. You need a strong Bewerbungsschreiben (cover letter) in addition to whatever Zeugnisse (certificates) your employer demands. This often involves not only letters from previous employers, but also academic transcripts ranging back to high school.
3. Qualifications: Hochschule doesn’t mean “high school”
We’ve already commented on the dangers of trying to translate your qualifications. Here are a few more pitfalls.
In Germany, a Hochschule is the equivalent of an American college. It differs from a Universität (university) in that Unis are usually more research oriented, while Hochschulen focus on real-world applications and skills. However, both institutions offer bachelor degrees, with some Hochschulen offering master’s degree coursework as well.
An even further distinction is made for the trades (Gewerben), such as construction, cooking and so on. These often involve an apprenticeship (Ausbildung) that replaces both college and the eleventh and twelfth (or even thirteenth) grade. Meanwhile, U.S. associate’s degrees don’t translate at all, and are generally viewed as equivalent to the top German high school diploma, the Abitur.
Confused yet? Your employers might be too. This is why you should not try to translate the names of your degree and alma mater. Be prepared to describe your qualifications and competencies during an interview instead.
4. Letter and email formalities: Sehr geehrte/r, Mit freundlichen Grüßen
You’ve learned guten Tag and auf Wiedersehen for hello and goodbye. But in a business environment, that is not how you start or end emails. There are other formalities you have to learn.
Typically, the opening line of a formal letter or email is Sehr geehrte Frau [name] or Sehr geehrter Herr [name], literally translating to “most respected Mrs. or Mr.” Pay close attention to the masculine or feminine adjective ending, and end the line with a comma. The next line, with which you begin the body of the message, is not capitalized unless it is a proper name, a noun or the pronoun Sie.
The most common formal ending for emails and letters is Mit freundlichen Grüßen (with friendly greetings), followed by your signature on the next with no comma in between.
There are numerous variations on these greetings, some equally formal, some less so. Feel free to match the tone of whomever wrote to you first. If they start their email with “Hallo Frank,” and end it with simply “Grüße,” you can feel free to write “Hallo” right back.
5. Telephones: Hier spricht, auf Wiederhören
Similar to the above, formal business calls require language of their own. It is traditional to begin a phone call by identifying yourself and your company, often with hier spricht [name], which means “[name] speaking.”
It’s also inappropriate to say auf Wiedersehen on the phone. That greeting literally means “until we see each other again,” but you don’t see people on the phone. This is why the formal farewell on a business call is auf Wiederhören (until we hear each other again).
6. Directness: Kein Blatt vor den Mund nehmen
Germans are very direct in how they speak, especially when expressing requests and criticism. It can sometimes seem rude to Anglophone ears, but then our many “pleases,” subjunctive forms and euphemisms sound wishy-washy and superficial to Germans.
What do I mean? Instead of saying “I’m afraid the printer must have run out of paper,” a German is more likely to say “I need some paper.” Instead of saying, “Your presentation might be improved if you did X,” a German is more likely to say, “X is better. Do X next time.” When your boss criticizes you like this, she’s probably not displaying aggression or disapproval. She’s just getting right to the point with a constructive suggestion for improvement.
There’s a general saying for this: Kein Blatt vor den Mund nehmen. It literally means “not to put a leaf in front of your mouth.” Figuratively, it means that someone doesn’t hide their words or intentions. Germans will expect this from you, so you’ll have to get used to it.
Sound Professional with Business German
Learning business German is just like learning general German, but with added cultural context and applications. In this regard, it’s somewhat advanced. You can’t receive a list of twenty words or phrases and rote memorize them. You have to know what’s appropriate when, so that you can sound professional.
But just in this one post, we’ve introduced you to twenty different German words and phrases, and that’s a huge start! Review these at your own pace—maybe you can write an imaginary Bewerbungsschreiben with formal greetings and a discussion of your qualifications. You’ll definitely need to do this one day if you hope to work in a German office. You might as well start practicing now!
And One More Thing...
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