Photo by Ricardo Mangual on Flickr
The United States has always been a bit of a conundrum, reputedly monolingual while dominating the world stage, stubbornly resisting adding Spanish as its second official language even though one-sixth of the population speaks the language and Hispanic multiculturals are changing the face of the country. Many still insist America is “English only.”
About 12.5% of American households speak Spanish primarily at home, with a broad diversity of over 350 languages overall. One study shows that American foreign language proficiency stems mainly from heritage speakers and that it declines greatly with each successive generation.
A recent report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences notes that English proficiency alone is not enough to be competitive in today’s global environment. Although it’s still the lingua franca in many parts of the world for business and government, the reality is that not everyone actually speaks English and if you want to conduct business abroad, you’re much better prepared if you have a proficiency in at least one other language or better yet multiple languages.
How important is it really to know a language other than English?
Business quite famously follows the money and the states that are serious about wanting to attract it pay closer attention to the bottom line than they do to lingual nativism.
The National Security Education Program (NSEP), in response to a Congressional request made a decade ago, developed The Language Flagship Program to promote language learning and proficiency for state educational systems. Several states answered the call with their own language roadmaps. All recognize the necessity to be more competitive in a world that isn’t always as primarily English as advertised but a few had specific reasons for wanting to address greater multilingual proficiency.
In a state where over half the population is non-white, with the second-largest group of Hispanics in the nation and with the third largest of both African-Americans and Asian-Americans, , Texas is also one of the most multilingual states with 35% of the population speaking a language other than English at home. Moreover, it’s one of the most lingually diverse with 164 languages including Native American, Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Alaskan Native. Their biggest requirements included Spanish, recognized as being ‘absolutely essential’ for doing business based in the American Southwest, along with French, Chinese and Vietnamese. Proficiency is important too, as some business leaders noted Spanish speakers often aren’t at a level that enables them to conduct business. The roadmap further made note of the state’s self-contradictory monolingual college graduates embarking on international careers. Texas’ language roadmap was also the only one to note the importance of multilingualism as a ‘common ground or common bond’ with potential customers for aspiring sales professionals.
The manufacturing slump hit this steel-making state decades ago and it’s only recently begun transitioning from a lagging manufacturing model to a more robust economy that draws on its resources and strategic locations. Its industrial cities have been in decline and its agricultural companies are competing in global markets where one of the remaining challenges has been, as the roadmap notes, “The groups that need new paths to profitability are those least cognizant of the benefits of foreign language skills.”
Ohio’s language roadmap foresaw the need to attract new jobs and businesses along with foreign investment and to also build positive, trusting relationships with the cultures with whom they expected to interact. With 329,000 private jobs linked to foreign trade, Ohio needed highly proficient foreign language speakers and specialists not just for their foreign trading partners but also to handle their increasingly multicultural population.
Oregon’s language roadmap referenced the state’s strong multicultural population and noted the difficulties of building a truly multilingual workforce. For its ESL residents they required more speakers of Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese, while Chinese, Japanese and Korean were needed for overseas operations, where the majority of their trading partners don’t speak English as a first language. In 2008 their second-largest export partner was China, followed by Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan. Oregon competes with Washington State to the north of them and California to the south for workers, businesses and brainpower, and noted that businesses and government currently rely on heritage speakers or outsourcing to meet their foreign language needs. The Oregonian roadmap called as well for cultural competency for both their multicultural residents along with their overseas customers. Oregon put some effort into working through the current challenges of overcoming a largely monolingual workforce with a table comparing ‘traditional thinking’ with more progressive ‘roadmap thinking’:
Today, Mandy Gettler, Associate Director for the University of Oregon’s Center for Applied Second Language Studies, indicated the Language Roadmap initiative ended in 2009 but has been influential in promoting language learning throughout the state, particularly in K-12 education where more students are graduating high school with greater second language fluency. At the time of this initiative, a separate state parallel program offering a bi-literacy certificate to students who spoke another language at home has been helpful in encouraging full proficiency in the parent language and also encourages immigrant students to become more proficient in English.
Hawaii’s language needs differ somewhat from the rest of the country’s. Located hundreds of miles from the mainland, the Pacific destination for countless tourists and honeymooners looks for language proficiency with Hawaiian, an indigenous language that had begun to fade but recently has made a comeback. They also look for interpreters and translators in underserved non-English-speaking communities for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Filipino, and for languages only spoken by comparatively few people in that particular part of the world – Ilokano, Tongan, Samoan, Okinawan, Marshallese, Pohnpeian and Chuukese. Their tourist industry hopes to increase convention attention with certified interpreters. Their language roadmap, the most recent (2013), makes it quite clear they fully understand the need for a globally-prepared workforce and they hope the contribution of multilingual talent will attract and support the development of high technology companies engaged in interpretation and translation software for localization projects.
Ten years later
While language education overall appears to languish more than ever in the United States, in some states it’s improving. Despite current political hostility to Arabic countries, the U.S. Department of Defense increasingly needs Arabic speakers as do other parts of the federal government and more universities are answering the call with Arabic language flagship programs. Chinese is gaining acceptance as another language for study and in 2015 Hawaii’s flagship program was expanded with a $625,000 grant. In high schools all around the country, bilingual studies grow with 39 states and Washington D.C. offering primarily Spanish and Chinese instruction. Russian is also more in demand than ever before.
Change may be slow and impeded by a political climate hostile to language education and bilingualism but progress, like the Internet, has a way of perceiving censorship – or just lack of attention and funding – as damage and routing around it. State governments and businesses that follow the money rather than the leader will be best prepared to gain the most advantage of the new century’s revenue and trade opportunities.
Yappn Corp is a multilingual-only enhanced machine translation company offering translations in over 100 languages. For more information or to invite us to a multilingual luau please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at +1.905.763.3510 x246. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook & LinkedIn!
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Written by Nicole Chardenet, Sales Development Rep at Yappn