Volkswagen Abandons German, Embraces English As Official Language

Short, perhaps, of washing down bratwurst with a pilsner while wearing lederhosen in October, we could hardly imagine anything more quintessentially German than Volkswagen. But Germany’s largest company has also developed into one of the largest automakers in the entire world, and to reflect its now global standing, VW is taking the significant step of shifting its official language of communication from German to English.

Big deal, you say? The move may have significant symbolic value, but it also has serious implications for a company that’s long been ingrained in the German way of doing things.

For one thing, it will help the Volkswagen Group recruit new talent from outside Germany’s own borders for whom the language barrier may have otherwise proven virtually insurmountable. Where the company has historically placed native Germans in its most senior executive positions almost exclusively, it has in recent years opened the doors to its top executive suites to “foreigners,” particularly from Italy.

While the heads of the VW, Audi, Porsche, Skoda, Bentley, and Bugatti brands are all German, the Seat and Lamborghini divisions are currently lead by Italians poached from the rival Fiat empire. Francisco Javier Garcia Sanz, of Spanish extraction, is currently the only member of the group’s management board to come from outside Germany. Two representatives from state shareholder Qatar and a union representative from Swedish truck manufacturer Scania are among the only supervisory board members to come from outside Germany.

Along with appointing more senior executives from abroad, VW also aims to foster the advancement of more female executives, and place greater emphasis on overseas experience in its promotion process. These steps are being implemented as guidelines until 2021, at which point they become binding regulations for the company’s human resources departments.

“As a globally positioned Group, we need the best people in the world,” said VW’s personnel chief Dr. Karlheinz Blessing. “We want managers to cooperate in the overall interests of the Group and leverage the potential available within this great company with comprehensive knowledge and a concerted effort.”

Switching from German to English (like Honda recently did) also promises to open up the famously insular company and its corporate culture to the international language of business. VW is based in the otherwise backwater town of Wolfsburg, far away from the international cities of Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, and Cologne. The company even enjoys the benefit of a federal law protecting it from foreign takeover. While those bits aren’t likely to change any time soon, the shift in the corporate culture from provincial to international may yet help Volkswagen further surpass General Motors and maybe even Toyota to become the world’s largest automaker – and even challenge the big oil companies in the rankings of the largest companies in the world.

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