Languages Benefit US Employees

Two woman in a traditional chalet in the summe...
What will you do if they don’t speak English? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This essay by the VP of Middlebury language programs, Michael Geisler, lays out multiple reasons why learning a language benefits you.  Languages aid cognitive skills, allow access to subtle nuances of a culture, help national security, keep US workers competitive, and prevent loss to the US should “global English” no longer be used as a lingua franca.  He focuses most of his time on the competitiveness of US workers, saying that Americans are now and will continue to be missing out on business opportunities.

First, overseas companies often recruit multi-lingual employees.  As I see it, even in a country like Sweden, where English-education succeeds so broadly, if a worker only spoke English, he or she would not be able to communicate with everyday people in a way that they were comfortable.

Second, assuming that non-English-speaking counterparts will speak English puts strain on the conversation, and hence the relationship.  Speaking English is not easy for non-native speakers.  Geisler writes, “[S]peaking English is not the same as being truly proficient in English. Many non-native speakers of English around the globe speak enough English to get by, but perceive it as a strain and revert to their own language at any opportunity.”  I think that English-speakers who have not worked at conversing in a non-native language do not understand the effort that their interlocutors expend in every conversation.  When I first went to Ukraine–where no one I knew spoke English–I slept 9+ hours per night because talking was exhausting.  I’ve heard English speakers say they don’t have the time or energy to learn the others’ language.  At present the n have to work really hard non-native English speakers bear the burden of communication and would like native English speakers to share the burden.  Geisler also discusses this “etiquette”: not investing in meeting the other person half-way on communication can be insulting.

Third, some non-English speaking-countries are rising on the world economic stage.  I can think of China, of course, and India.  But Brazil and Turkey are gaining market share.  As they grow in importance, speaking those languages rises in value.  Would a Turk rather do business with a Spaniard who speaks Turkish, or an American who only speaks English?  Learning languages will allow entry into new markets now and in the future.

Geisler concludes with difficult questions about the US educational system.  We do not prioritize language education, and what education there is does not always measure up.  He does not offer concrete ways to develop better standards or implement them, and we know that implementing them will be expensive.

I think he makes his case on the importance of languages in education.  So how do we act on Geisler’s imperative in a time of fiscal crisis in US education?  What are ways to help the US emphasize language education, without making huge demands on the strained education budgets?

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Definitely *not* loving language

Miranda Washinawatok Menominee

Ignorance of languages can exacerbate mistrust.  The United States’–and many other countries’–history demonstrates oppression of language as a natural part of suppressing culture.  This article demonstrates that indigenous languages continue to strike fear in the hearts of some non-indigenous Americans.  Immigrant languages can cause the same problem.  In the 90s I witnessed an altercation on a public bus between a working-class white guy who started yelling at a pair of working-class Latinos who were speaking Spanish.  The white guy appealed to the driver: “You never know if they’re talking about you!”

That the ones in power feel threatened strikes me.  Whites do not risk an “Indian uprising” or anything like that, and Latinos seem to adapt to white political structures.  Nevertheless, the expression of thoughts in ways that whites cannot understand is a threat on its own.  Perhaps an underlying mistrust is coming to the surface.

What do you think the solution is?  My solution is to teach Spanish in the schools, from the first grade, alongside another community language, depending on the location–Menominee, Hmong, whatever.  Creating a bi- or trilingual population will smooth over the mistrust.  Finns decided to require Swedish language education for all the population because of its Swedish minority and proximity to Sweden.  And the Finns’ educational system does well, as far as I know.  I think Americans are capable of learning more languages–our indigenous and immigrants demonstrate this.