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John Riach's Column

In jeder Ausgabe unseres Newsletters erzählt  Dr. John Riach, der Dozent für Wirtschaftsenglisch der Fakultät für Wirtschaftswissenschaften, in seiner Kolumne von den Irrungen und Wirrungen der englischen Sprache.

Hier finden Sie die Kolumnen als Download bereitgestellt.

Let’s do English economically, Juni 2015

In my last article for this publication I would like to take the opportunity to say something more serious about the importance of English for students of economics and management sciences. I do not know how to translate the word “Goethe” into my native tongue, but when it comes to teaching English here at the faculty there are definitely two souls within my breast. On the one hand it is extremely rewarding to have classes of students who are participating not because they need to collect the ECTS but because they just want to improve their business communication skills. On the other hand I am concerned about the armies of students who do nothing to work on language skills. This concern is not just some vain projection of an English teacher’s love for language, but does have an empirical basis. I took a look at 500 German ads for graduates of management sciences and over 70% require working fluency in English. That percentage climbs to over 90% when you take a look at a further 500 job ads aimed at executive positions in Germany. Given this clear need from the perspective of the working world it is thus somewhat surprising to see that it is possible to study economics and management sciences without doing any English whatsoever. We looked at the language requirements for all German universities offering degree programs and ascertained that only a very small minority had any language requirements at all. Yes, the home pages say that you need good English and mathematical skills, but no one checks out or fosters the English part. Admissions are based on average Abitur grades and not in specific subjects. There are indeed numerous English courses being offered, but they are almost exclusively voluntary and given the extreme time and content constraints in our study programs it is not surprising that most students just stick to their mandatory ECTS requirements. In actual fact Paderborn is one of very few German universities where the faculty actually employs someone to teach English. In most cases courses are handled by university language centers, who often have difficulties finding teachers who actually know what students need as students of economics and management sciences. One renowned German faculty even outsources the job to a private language school.

So after looking at the ads I started to think about some theoretical educational justification for making English language skills mandatory. The introduction of Bachelor and Masters studies in Germany was based on the goals set out in the Bologna Declaration in 1999. In this wonderful example of European political correctness you can find one of my favorite examples of educational rhetoric, the concept of “employability”. European political correctness requires the use of terms which are not precise, not explicit, not concrete and which can be interpreted arbitrarily. “Employability” definitely fits the bill. For Bachelor students employability more or less means getting a well-paying job. For Masters students it means getting a better paying job. For university educationalists it means teaching … something …anything … and let’s have a conference to discuss what employability means. As Steven Pinker has pointed out, being politically incorrect begins when you start telling the truth. And in this case the truth is very simple. The range of English language skills of German students studying economics and management sciences (excluding International Business Studies) is enormous, stretching from A2 to C2 on the European Common Reference Framework scale. The better students did not really pick up these skills during their formal school English classes. The vast majority of BWL Bachelor students are stuck somewhere between B1 and B2 and this is simply not enough either to prepare for the working world or to even attempt to compete in the academic world of economics and management sciences. English is not everything, but it also not something we should expect students to pick up en passant. The fix is simple. 4 ECTS for Bachelor students preparing them for the working world and 4 ECTS for Master students to prepare them for the academic world. Yes, that costs money and yes we need better qualified teachers, but I have still not received an answer to the question I posed to a group of senior controller executives at Daimler many years ago just before they axed my budget. “What are the economic costs of bad communication, in any language”?


Dare you write, November 2014

Now and then a non-native English colleague will approach me and ask „Can you write that in English“? Although the question is legitimate (I mean, I get paid for knowing something about how English works), the query always triggers a Faust-like conflict in my soul: Should I answer the question from a teacher’s perspective or from my preferred linguist’s eye view. As a teacher I have to say “I have been there yesterday” is absolutely wrong. As a linguist the sentence is completely normal and to be expected by native speakers. People speak faster than they think and they speak often while thinking about what they are producing. Real life is not a language course. That does not mean that language is arbitrary or that the speaker can do whatever he/she likes. It simply means that the infinity of sentences which can easily be understood does not rely solely on the given number of grammar rules or the given list of accepted vocabulary. The key is getting other people to go along with you; it is not correctness but acceptance.

That understanding helps to frame the context of most of the queries I get in Building Q from colleagues. Most of the writers have published successfully in English, which is a key factor in their career development. In fact their English is really good because they have to overcome the bias of submitting from a non-native speaking country, so we are not talking about basic grammar and vocabulary. So, when they ask „Can you write that in English“, they want to make sure that some phrase is not too new or daring.

This concern for conventions is a shame. Around 500 people are native English speakers and 2 billion people overall speak English. Hence, the world of global English is expanding and becoming increasingly creative. But the academic world is in many cases moving in the opposite direction. “Trust” as a topic is researched by sociologist, psychologists, economists and many others. However, tribal language laws restrict and confuse interdisciplinary communication. Even single journals cultivate their unique style of writing and many do indeed provide lists of the dos and donts of their respective publications. (From a linguistic perspective a lot of the advice looks like a curious collection of the editors’ particular views on writing. Reading these collections is one of the perks of my job.) As head of a “community” you are allowed to dictate the tribal language code. That code is so essential to publishing opportunities for upcoming graduate students that it has flowered a growing industry of seminars and lectures all more or less called “How to publish in my world”.

As a result, language creativity among my colleagues in academic publishing is often restricted to finding a sexy, catchy title. Maybe it is time to go back to the roots. I don’t think Adam Smith went to the Church in Scotland, the guardians of language at that time, in order to ask them whether it is ok to talk about “the invisible hand”. So the question is not “Can you write”, but rather “Dare you write”.


The English language and its complexity, April 2014

One of the most common misconceptions among non-linguists is the idea that English is somehow “easier” than other languages such as Russian or Chinese or even German. Fortunately or unfortunately, that is simply not true from a linguist’s perspective.

As Heinrich Heim correctly pointed out “English is much easier to learn poorly and to communicate in poorly than any other language”.  Is that good or bad news? From an economic perspective certainly bad news. Prima facie the idea of a Chinese business person speaking bad English to a Spanish business per-son speaking bad English may seem to be the present reality of globalization. But that is surely shortsighted. I am convinced that one of the most serious costs in international business is the price of poor communication.

One of the problems is certainly the fact that most people are not really all that good at communicating in any language. Here is where the myth of the “native speaker” enters the scene. Certainly native speakers have certain advantages and head starts as far as mastery of their mother tongue is concerned, but that does not mean they are really able to communicate well, either in speaking or in writing. Looking at some of the re-write requests from academic journals one gets the feeling that the standard sentence requesting the German non-native writer to have his paper “checked, corrected and improved” by a native speaker are simply over the top. Language is not only a communication instrument, it is also an instrument of power.

Indeed, the world’s superpowers since the 18th century (Great Britain and the USA) both spoke English. Unfortunately, superpowers have the luxury of not really having to critically reflect much about any-thing. Take the language: On the one hand Americans are certainly extremely tolerant when they hear non-natives speaking English. Regardless what you garble it is all “great”. That’s the good news. Now the bad news: Americans don’t really take into consideration what the garble means really. They tend to interpret the message as if it were being spoken by a native speaker, with all the complex nuances, which language entails. So the non-native is interpreted as being more “aggressive” or less “polite” than he or she intended.

Take the following test to see what I mean:

1)      Which sentence is more aggressive and why?

a)      Have you done it?

b)      Did you do it?


2)      What’s the difference between the following spoken sentences?

a)      I’ll do it.

b)      I will do it.


3)      Which sentence is better?

a)      He is studying in Paderborn.

b)      He studies in Paderborn.


4)      Which sentence sounds better in a presentation and why?

a)      First, I will provide you with an overview.

b)      I’ll begin by providing you with an overview.


5)      Which sentence conveys a higher degree of certainty?

a)      We’re going to leave at 10.

b)      We leave at 10.



1.      b. The simple past expresses the speaker’s assumption that you should be done or their anger that he knows you have not done it. This is one of the sources of the myth that German business people are “aggressive”.


2.      Sentence b is much stronger. In spoken English, short forms are the normal forms. We use a long form to emphasize, which could be because I am really angry or I be-lieve that the listener does not really believe me.


3.      It doesn’t matter. Students study for 6 or 7 semesters, which could be their routine (b) or just what they are doing at present (a).


4.      Sentence b. The function of progressive forms (ing) is to stretch and create space. In this case it makes the audience feel more in-cluded.


5.      Sentence b. It is like a fact and managers use simple present when they want no discussion or any doubt. The going-to future is one of the least understood tenses of Eng-lish. Sentence a means “we are going to try and leave at 10”.


The British and their language ambiguity, November 2013

Language is a mirror of the culture(s) which speak it. Sorting out what is said and how it is said necessitates initially an understanding of the specific culture involved.

Kate Fox, a British anthropologist did just that in her delightful book “Watching the English”. She spent years observing how the English behave and talk in a myriad of situations. For our purposes, the world of professional work is most fascinating. We’re not talking here about how Wayne Rooney speaks or the Queen, but rather well-educated professionals.

There appears to be three main pillars framing this world of communication. First and foremost is the need to be as polite as possible as long as possible. This creates dozens of euphemistic phrases such as “How wonderfully delightful of you to come yes indeed” or “I am terribly sorry to bother you but I do hope you don’t mind not smoking in our office”. The sentences them-selves just sound quaint and some-how a bit outdated for non-English speakers of English, but this exaggerated politeness is combined diabolically with the expectation that the listener should themselves behave as the English speaker expects, other-wise even more politely packaged negative signals are sent. My favourite example after a particularly difficult and nasty meeting in London was my host’s farewell sentence: “It was interesting to have known you.”, which translates roughly as “I am glad never to have to meet you ever ever again.”.

A second aspect of English professional communication is the need to be serious, but not too serious, to be professional but not too professional. Enthusiasm is rejected as “American” and the “cold efficiency” of the German businessperson is frowned upon. The most prominent aspect of this characteristic is the amount of time between the start of a meeting and until when one finally gets down to the business at hand. It is different than small talk. Discussion moves seemingly randomly from the weather, to delays at Heathrow, to the traffic on the M25 and the state of the British economy, anything except the agenda.

Wanting to appear not too overly concerned about any problems is connected with a third aspect of professional communication in England, the British sense of humour and irony. Fox points out that the English are so deceivably ironic, that they themselves often don’t know if they are being ironic or not. Just take a look at question tags, which Germans learn as mechanical manipulations of positives and negatives: The new engine is better, isn’t it. If the speaker goes up with his voice at the “isn’t it”, the sentences means “yes, the new engine is in-deed better”. If the speaker lowers his voice, then the sentence suddenly means the exact opposite as the speaker expresses doubt. The real killer is the comma. The longer the speaker hesitates before saying “isn’t it”, the longer he leaves the listener wondering whether he really means what he is saying. My advice? Avoid England. Just fly directly to Edinburgh.



English ain’t easy, actually, April 2013

English is the global language of international business and professional economics. We encounter it daily, both on and off the job. According to recent surveys about 90% of all job positions for economic and business administration graduates in Germany require proficiency in today’s lingua franca. Money speaks English and more than 50% of the 1.6 billion people who speak English do so as a second or third language.

However, despite globalization there are still major intercultural barriers to be overcome when speaking to native speakers. The purpose of this column is to explore some of these differences, many of which I am sure you have encountered in your own professional careers. In addition I want to look at weird and wonderful pieces of language, which are of interest to our profession.

With all due respect to Leo and Babble and Linguee and others, translation is probably one of the least effective means of approaching a new language.

Language is embedded in culture and is nothing more or less than a reflection of any given culture. This, in turn, has a radical impact on how words are used. Literal translation is usually just one step away from an inter-cultural blunder. This is particularly important when dealing with cultures with radical differences in cultural values. A central aspect of American culture, for example, is their infinite optimism and can-do mentality. Americans tend to start at “yes” and do everything to avoid the word “no”. German realism tends to start at “no” and then slowly warm up to “yes, but”. This has an impact on what simple American words really mean and why German ears are often misled. “As soon as possible” means “when I get around to perhaps doing it”. “I’m going to come to your party” means “Look, I’ve 4 other dates at the same time on Saturday, but in order to make you happy I am willing to make it look as if I am coming, but don’t count on it!”. But, you might counter, does that really matter for the professional world of business? You better believe it. Working for a large German corporation, one of the first changes we introduced was to give all our American suppliers a deadline date, which was 4 weeks earlier than the actual date. The trick is to understand what words and phrases really mean and to “translate” one’s own expectations into the listener’s framework of linguistic expectations. That ain’t easy.




Dr. John Riach


John Riach
+49 5251 60-2070


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