Business Communication and Intercultural Communication in Europe: The State of the Art

Article excerpt

A United States professor of business communication who takes a look at the curriculum of the department of business administration at major European universities might be surprised to discover that many, if not most, do not offer any classes in business communication or in intercultural communication. The same professor will perhaps be equally surprised to discover that a business graduate, in much of Europe, is trained and expected to be multilingual; this does not mean speaking some English along with one's native language, but being reasonably fluent in two, three, or four languages.

Clearly, the priorities as far as communication go are different in departments of business administration at European universities, as against those in the U.S.

Language Training

Within the European Union's administration, eleven national languages are officially recognized for the fifteen member states: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish. These states are moving towards ever closer economic integration, and any company trying to fully participate in this evolution will, sooner or later, meet the challenge of having to communicate in most, if not all, of those eleven languages, not to mention important regional languages (such as Catalan in Spain) and the languages used outside the European Union, for instance in Central and Eastern Europe.

Not surprisingly, then, in most cases the first communication skills priority for European business graduates is bound to be foreign language training. At my own school, graduates minimally need to be trilingual: Dutch, their native language, plus English (usually) and French. A substantial number are quadrilingual, adding German, and some of those 22-23 year old students will speak more than four languages upon graduation. What this really means is that they will have virtually no listening or reading problems in those languages; will be reasonably at ease when participating in a conversation; and will be able to write a memo, a letter, or a report and even give an oral presentation and negotiate - even if not perfectly. Multilingualism is witnessed less frequently in some of the larger European states, but even there most business graduates will have learned one to several foreign languages.

But what is the place of general business communication, i.e., learning how to write a good business letter, a memo, a report, or how to give an oral presentation, to organize or chair a meeting, to negotiate? If these skills are taught at all, they are likely to be taught only in the foreign language training courses. There are some exceptions. One business school in Antwerp (UFSIA-TEW) has substantial course offerings in business communication. Not surprisingly, this happened under the impulse of Professor Stijn Verrept, an ABC member and founder of the Flemish Association for Business Communication. Another business school in Antwerp (the Handelshogeschool) under the impulse of professor Teun De Rycker took the initiative of linking its business communication course to one taught at a school in the U.S. (Professor Ken Davis at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis).

In 1994, I published the results of a study about foreign language training (especially French) that I had carried out for the Flemish Ministry of Education in Belgium. The study showed that in several business schools language training is still fairly traditional with emphasis on grammar and translation rather than on communication skills. In these cases, business communication skills will not be taught at all. In those schools (their number is hopefully growing) where language training emphasizes oral and written communication skills, the students will learn some of the basic business communication skills - but not in their native language.

My study also showed that there is a high demand for job applicants with good "social skills" (and we may assume that communication skills are part of these) as well as foreign language skills, while on the other hand the competencies of young graduates in these two fields are perceived by companies to be below expectations. …