What sounds like a paradox is the consideration of a Russian-speaking worker in an electrical plant in Germany on the tacit attitude of management and German co-workers to the use of languages other than German on the shop floor of the company where he is employed as a skilled worker; a typical case or an exception?
About a quarter of the population of working age in Germany has a so-called “migration background” and probably speaks at least one other language in addition to German at home and often at work. In the context of migration, plurilingualism is a reality in German workplaces. According to the insights gained by the study-group DaA (Deutsch am Arbeitsplatz = German at the Workplace) during their research on workplace communications with and among migrants, the attitude of employers, management and co-workers towards the phenomenon seems to be contradictory. Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, a group of researchers and practitioners from different educational institutions interviewed workers with and without migration backgrounds, supervisors, managers, employers' and workers' representatives in two large enterprises and in 13 small and medium-sized companies in North and West Germany in the period 2007-2009. The aim was to identify workplace communicative practices and requirements in order to improve language provision for migrants in employment and for those seeking employment.
Although no specific questions on plurilingualism were planned, the issue of the use of languages other than German was raised by management and workers in almost all the interviews. Russian, Turkish, Polish, etc. are used not only in small-talk but also in oral exchanges related to work tasks. Particularly in smaller businesses with few or no formal communication processes, such as team meetings, management briefings, shift hand-overs, etc., work-related communication not infrequently takes place through informal discussion between workers in a language other than German.
Employers and management show different attitudes towards this. Some fear a loss of control. As the owner of a small plastic processing company rather vividly puts it: “I prefer them to talk German in front of my belly, than Russian behind my back”. Others, such as a factory manager, note an uneasiness in the German workforce confronted with a language they do not understand: “The Germans don’t like it when their immigrant co-workers speak in their native language during breaks. They wonder “Are they agitating, what’s happening?” All interviewees seem to believe that the use of another language “hinders them (non-native-German-speakers) from improving their German” (Grünhage-Monetti 2009:19). None of the respondents reflected on the quality of the work tasks and organization: do they allow for communication and “discretion” in the sense of “autonomy and responsibility in the design, execution or evaluation of work activities and processes”? (Felstead et. al. 2011:8); do they foster the acquisition and practice of the German language or do they hinder it?
Finally, there were also some positive comments, stressing the assets of a multilingual workforce for the company who can draw on bilingual employees as interpreters in order to communicate with foreign clients or to make sure that information is understood and quality is assured.
The situation reported here may not be representative, but it reflects a widespread attitude in Germany. For researchers and practitioners, it implies a challenge: how to support companies and employees in turning the workplace into a rewarding and rewarded language learning space.
Alan Felstead, Alison Fuller, Nick Jewson and Lorna Unwin: Working to learn, learning to work. In: Praxis. UK Commission for Employment and Skills, No.7 / January 2011http://www.ukces.org.uk/assets/ukces/docs/publications/praxis-7-working-to-learn-learning-to-work.pdf
Grünhage-Monetti, M. (2009): Learning needs of migrant workers in Germany. In: Workplace Learning and Skills Bulletin. Cambridge, Issue 7, S. 17-18