Burkhard Schwenker is finding life fairly tough. Roland Berger - the Munich-based strategy consultancy of which he is chief executive - has been expanding faster outside its home country than within it, partly as a consequence of a sluggish local economy.

While Mr Schwenker says things are picking up in the world's third largest economy, he bemoans a negative perception in Germany about what the country's businesses are capable of. "There is too much talk of weaknesses, and not enough about strengths," he says. At least some of the reasons for this, he says, can be laid at the door of what might seem an unusual culprit - the German language.

"If I want to talk about growth and ambition, I find it a lot easier if I speak in English, rather than German," says Mr Schwenker. "Imagine I want to say to some people: 'Let's go for it, and let's do it together.' I can say this in English, and people will listen, but if I say it in German it takes up too many words, and [the phrasing] is impossible."

Roland Berger is one of the world's largest strategy consultancies, and the only one of the top 10 that is based in Europe rather than the US. As the head of this organisation, which derives around half of its €500m ($648m) annual revenues from outside its home country, Mr Schwenker's views carry some weight. But the notion that the German language is inhibiting the German economy is bound to be controversial. It may be famous for its convoluted sentence structures but the German language has also allowed such intellectual giants as Friedrich Schiller, the playwright, and Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher, to communicate perfectly adequately.

Still more arresting is the idea - advanced not by Mr Schwenker, but by others - that some German words and phrases associated with exhorting people to do better have been debased by the country's former Nazi leaders and those in charge of the former communist East Germany. According to this view, many business people in Germany find it easier to slip into English when trying to express themselves in an upbeat way.

One person who agrees with Mr Schwenker is Manfred Puhlmann, chief executive of Edscha, a medium-sized German car parts maker with plants around the world. "You can convey more of a 'can-do' attitude when speaking English, compared to when you say the same words in German," he says. "In German there are more redundancies of language, and a greater carry-over of the complexities of history. You see this in meetings when [German] people are speaking English - especially when they carry on doing this, even after the last English [native] speaker has left the room."

Hubertus von Grünberg, chairman of the supervisory board of the Continental tyre company, says the German language "is multi-faceted and has an enormous potential to convey to people the most complex thoughts and emotions".

But he adds: "Because of the rise of Nazism and its consequences, many Germans are shy about displaying patriotism and showing themselves to be in any way demagogic. As a result, a lot of Germans are scared about coming across as too strongly emotional. In a business setting this can mean German managers steer away from using any type of emotional language, when they want to try to motivate people. There is, therefore, a natural tendency to use English as an alternative."

Berthold Leibinger, chief executive of Trumpf, a machine tool company in Stuttgart, says: "If we [Germans] speak English, it's as though we change clothes. We switch towards more Anglo-Saxon attitudes which are about togetherness, common sense and a pragmatic way of living - the kind of attitudes you tend to associate more readily with the US."

Mr Leibinger also sees the lingering effects of the wartime era, when many German words and phrases were "abused" for propaganda purposes. And later, says Mr Leibinger, words such as Freundschaft (German for friendship) were closely associated with the communist regime of former East Germany. In those times Freundschaft was used as a word of comradely greeting. The word is difficult for many ordinary Germans to use now, says Mr Leibinger, because it evokes memories of dictatorship.

"That's why so many English words are used in Germany especially in a context when people are discussing some kind of emotion or are giving a pep talk. There are a lot of German words that are off-limits," he says.

Not everyone agrees with this - and some disagree vehemently. Hartmut Mehdorn is chief executive of Deutsche Bahn, the train operator, and a man with long experience in the German business community, having held high-level jobs at Daimler Aerospace and Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, the printing machine maker. He says that the key factor in communicating is not the language, but the message. "[If you have a good message], you can say it in English, German or Greek, and the audience will understand and be motivated. Each language gives us the tools [for communicating ideas] but it is up to the speaker to use the right ones."

Werner Schmitz, who studies the use of German in the business world at the Goethe Institut, a Munich-based group that promotes German culture and language, says: "German is just as good as English when it comes to motivating people. It is just that the slogans are different."

But suppose that Mr Mehdorn and Mr Schmitz are wrong, and some ideas to do with motivating people are easier to convey in English than in German. How should German managers respond to this? In practice, many of them already use English a lot, since a large number of German companies have international operations. Deutsche Bank, for instance, has had English as its main working language for years.

Even so, when speaking in a room full of German speakers, Mr Schwenker says it would seem "rather contrived" if he used only English. He might, however, use English terms such as "turnround" or "IPO" that have slipped into German business-speak because their meaning is easy to grasp and they are concise.

Mr von Grünberg of Continental says he would never use English in a meeting with only German participants, because this would look false and somehow indicate he was trying to impress them with his knowledge of another language.

Others have pointed out another pitfall of slipping too much English into discussions in Germany: fewer people may understand the language than the speaker realises (see side panel).

Tobias Hagenmeyer is chief executive of Getrag, a German maker of gearboxes for cars, which has a joint venture with the Ford motor company in transmissions, where English is the main working language. He says: "I am convinced that [in meetings involving English being spoken to a large group of German speakers] some percentage of precision is lost in the conversation."

Perhaps the one lesson that can be drawn is that German companies should simply continue their impressive use of English. It has, after all, enabled many German companies to perform well in countries where use of English has become a key tool in communicating ideas to customers as well as employees.

Within groups of German speakers, there is little likelihood - or need - for German business people to employ English all the time. Since the use of this language around the world is almost certain to grow the more German people who can understand and use English, the better the prospects for the German economy.

That said, the dual-language approach conceals clear dangers, perhaps the greatest of which is that speakers may assume everyone in a meeting has a good understanding of a language when really they do not. If managers choose to embrace the rise of English as the international language of commerce, they would do well to be aware of the problems its use can create.

English is not always music to the ears

Paolo Carignani knows a lot about the use of different languages to convey ideas. As the Italian music director of the Frankfurt Opera and a guest conductor with orchestras worldwide, Mr Carignani speaks English a lot - but he knows that people of different nationalities in his orchestras do not always understand the language fully.

Even in a setting where most people say they can understand English, he says, it is sometimes better to slip into another language to convey an accurate message. In the musical world that language is Italian.

“Every musician will understand what fermata, crescendo, forte, ripresa means,” he says.

Similar thoughts about the imperfections of relying on English occur to Bodo Holz, chief executive of Management Engineers, a Düsseldorf-based management consultancy which, in spite of its name, operates predominantly in Germany. Mr Holz thinks that, even allowing for the extent to which English dominates the global business community, German companies have gone too blindly down the road of operating in the language.

“In working with our clients, we observe considerable apprehension against ‘consultanese’, a language dotted with English terms and phrases. And when you come to smaller owner-managed enterprises, you are asked outright: ‘Can’t you speak German any more?’,” says Mr Holz.

He is scathing about what he reckons is the over-use of English terms in the German corporate world.

“English phrases in consulting often are meant to signal ‘Look. I am an internationally experienced guru.’ In reality, they are a smoke screen that inexperienced consultants try to hide behind.”

Gary Elliott, a Canadian who is head of the lift and escalator business of ThyssenKrupp, the German industrial group, is one of a few native English speakers who have risen to prominence in a large German company. He communicates as much as he can in German.

“In our headquarters everybody does speak English as they have to communicate with our colleagues around the world. However, our meetings in Germany are conducted in German unless there are participants from abroad who do not speak German.

“This is my wish, after all: living in Germany I must speak the language and with nearly all international communication done in English and so much international travel, the office is the only chance I have to speak German.”

The joint chief executives of Vaillant, a leading German maker of domestic central heating boilers, provide an interesting perspective on the issue. Unusually for a German corporation, Claes Göransson, one of the two top people, is Swedish, while Michel Brosset is French.

Mr Göransson thinks that English is a much easier language to use than German and that people can express themselves more positively using it. One reason for this, he says, is the sheer ubiquity of the language. “English is the language of economics, management, business, trade and finance.”

He adds that English is structurally much simpler. “English leads with the verb, whereas German leaves it until the end. And English is shorter and more direct.”

Mr Brosset is more ambiguous on the subject. He says that speaking English in meetings where there are different nationalities “eases things”.

In the past few years, Vaillant has made some headway in insisting that most internal documents are in English to assist a free flow of information. But Mr Brosset advocates extreme care in switching to English - or any other language with which speakers are not completely comfortable - for no good reason.

“When everyone around the table speaks German the meeting will be held in German. The same applies for situations where everyone around the table is a French native speaker or has a very good command of the French language.”

He says that managers must be extremely careful before they start foisting languages on people. The greater opportunity for misunderstandings to take place can bring big commercial and personal repercussions.

Next in series: how English is taking root in Chinese business

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