[The Language of Worldwide Business] Guten Tag?

The word from the Chiron employee reunion this week was that Genentech employees (now Roche employees) moving to corporate headquarters in Basel, Switzerland to work are being asked to learn German. In the Chiron diaspora following its acquisition by (also) Basel headquartered Novartis, Chiron alums work everywhere – including Genentech: word flows quickly on stuff like this.

If the rumor is true – and even from a glance at the Roche website (German / “Deutsch” listed as default website language option) it appears so, it’s an odd choice as Roche’s lingua franca for their worldwide business.

When I worked with Chiron in the late ’90’s English was used as the default language to communicate among employees who were German, Italian, Dutch, and American. As German-speaking Prussian-German statesmen Otto von Bismarck noted, “The most significant event of the 20th century will be that the fact that the North Americans speak English.”  In the late 1990’s more people worldwide spoke English as a second language than spoke english as a first language. (See Dr. James Fleming’s case for English in this pdf here.)

Along with speaking English, a great case can be made that business people should learn Mandarin. While China has over 50 languages, Mandarin has become the unifying speech in a country that has over 1.3 billion people – or 1 out of every 5 people worldwide. Though Cantonese, along with English, is the  other language of many Chinese-American communities (due to the initial trade between the post-Revolutionary War United States and Chinese in Guangzhou and the subsequent early waves of immigration from Canton province to the U.S.A.), Mandarin – also known as the Beijing Guanhua dialect – has become the unifying language.

For those doing business in the Americas, Spanish along with English, is an essential language to do business. Apart from the large population of Spanish speakers in most of Central and South America (Portuguese spoken in Brazil), there are large communities in the US where Spanish or Spanish and English are the common languages.

And German? Not so much.

Despite the glowing pitch from “Learn German” speech training companies (“After English, German is the second most important language worldwide for business, tourism and diplomacy”) German (90 million speakers) pales in comparison to Mandarin (estimated 850 million speakers), English (340 million), Spanish (330 million) and even Arabic (220 million.)

So what to make of the Roche “speak German” strategy?

Who knows?

There is a stereotypical putdown phrase that gets kicked around: “They’re very Swiss.” It is not a compliment. Perhaps the Roche desire to unify their corporate employees speech around German is that stereotype come to life.

There is some deliciously ironic about the new Global Head of Manufacturing for Roche – Taiwanese and US educated Pat Yang – who formerly headed up Genentech’s product manufacturing – learning to speak German. [Disclosure: Genentech is a client and I’ve done work in Pat’s area]. Yang is a widely-admired leader and exec, and will be apparently moving to Basel, along with others, as part of the new Roche integration of Genentech and its talent.

But speaking German as a worldwide language strategy for their execs? Not such a good sign.