LOSING BUSINESS

May 18, 2020


Cuando yo era nina, mi familia y yo siempre ibamos de vacaciones a Montevideo or a Rio de Janerio. 

Did you understand the sentence above?  If not, maybe you should have. Let’s look:

 When I was a child, my family and I always used to go on vacation to Montevideo or to Rio de Janerio. 

I certainly did NOT know that in 2015, the United States had more Spanish speakers that Spain.  According to the U.S. Census Office, by 2050 there will be one hundred and thirty-eight (138) million Spanish speaking people in the U.S.  This would make our country the largest Spanish-speaking country on the planet.

Spanish is not the only language you and your employees may need to understand when doing business.  In the U.S., about sixty-five (65) million residents speak a language other than English. Forty (40%) percent of those are limited or have no English proficiency.  This to me is very striking.  From this, we must ask, how many of us speak ONLY English? 

In 1978 I worked for a company that designed and manufactured water heaters, both residential and commercial.  We had recently secured a customer located in the Netherlands that was very interested in our commercial product.  That new customer required our product to meet the standards of the Dutch Gas Institute in Apeldoorn, Holland.  I was in charge of the engineering effort at that company and as such was designated to fly to Apeldoorn and work the product through the testing and approval process.  The staff at the Gas Institute were extremely helpful during my three-week visit and did everything possible to make my stay successful.  While there, I met the receptionist for the Institute and signed in and out with her every day.  She not only spoke great English, but five other languages as well.  I was amazed at her language abilities.  One other thing I discovered, she was not paid enough by the Institute to afford an automobile.  She road a bicycle to and from work.  Imagine being able to speak fluently in six languages and not be able to own a car.  It seems that’s not so uncommon in western Europe because most people are multi-lingual.

I really never understood why Americans are not embarrassed about their considerable lack of language skills.  In my opinion, and it is my opinion, we sometimes come off to people in other countries as being arrogant.  We cannot be bothered to learn another language.  QUESTION:  Could this great lack of language skills be costing us from an economic standpoint?   According to a fairly new study from the American Council on Teaching of Foreign Languages, twenty-two percent (22%) of manufacturing companies reported they could not pursue or lost business due to language barriers.

The demand for language skills is greater than it has ever been and that gap seems to be gradually widening.  In order for that gap to lessen, we are going to have to address several foundational issues relative to teaching languages.  So, whose job is it to teach languages?  I know for a fact that it is much easier to learn a second or even third language when you are in grammar school, middle school or even high school as opposed to learning languages as an adult.  Been there, done that, got the “T” shirt. Right now, fewer than twenty percent (20%) of students in middle and high school are learning a second language.  In my opinion, languages should and MUST be required for graduation.

Why don’t we make foreign languages a strategic focus throughout the recruitment process and in doing so, we will find that more and more high school students and college graduates will pay attention to the need.   If hiring is dependent upon language skills, we will find more students getting on board at an earlier stage in their education.  Next, train talented candidates and employees who lack the required skills to improve their proficiency.  It seems to me that companies, specifically multi-national companies, must identify and cultivate a pipeline of multilingual talent.  Partner with colleges and universities and trade schools to offer internships and job opportunities for qualified students and recent graduates with the linguistic and global competencies your organization needs and requires.  

While being able to speak another language is essential to the current economic reality, the overriding benefit is that it allows us to gain insight into other cultures with a side effect—we become a better person.  Just a thought. 

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