¿Donde se encuentra ese producto?
Did you understand that sentence? Well, maybe you should, since it’s likely a high percentage of your workers do. (“Where is that product?” is the translation from Spanish.)
In fact, as of 2015, the U.S. has more Spanish speakers than Spain. And according to the Census Office, by 2050 there will be 138 million Spanish speakers, which would make us the largest Spanish-speaking nation on Earth.
But Spanish isn’t the only language your employees are likely to be fluent in. In the U.S., 65 million residents speak a language other than English (40% with limited or no English proficiency).
This begs the question: How many of us speak only English?
I have never understood why Americans aren’t embarrassed about their lack of language skills. When I travel abroad everyone is at least bilingual and many are proficient at three or more languages.
To me this U.S. attitude comes off as arrogant. We can’t be bothered to learn another language and we assume everyone can speak English, and in some cases, we think everyone should.
Could this lack of language skills cost us economically? It can and it does.
According to a new study from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 22% of manufacturing companies reported that they couldn’t pursue or lost business due to language barriers.
“The demand for language skills is bigger than it’s ever been and that gap is only going to get bigger,” says Howie Berman, executive director of ACTFL. “In order to make sure that the manufacturing and other sectors are able to keep up with demand, they are going to have to address some real foundational issues when it comes to language education. Otherwise, they will fail to serve the needs of their customers.”
With the myriad of things that are out of the control of businesses, learning foreign languages to speak to your employees, suppliers and customers need not be one of them.
So, whose job is it to teach these languages?
Berman feels it’s the job of the public school system. At an early age, these skills need to be embedded into students. Currently, less than 20% of students are learning a language in high school and when it comes to college levels it’s in the single digits.
“It's not a privilege to get this education; it should be part of our teaching system,” he points outs.
This education can’t come soon enough as nine out of ten U.S. employers rely on employees with language skills other than English, according to the survey. And that trend will continue as 56% say their foreign language demand will increase in the next five years.
Berman offers companies a few pointers on how to acquire the necessary language competency:
Make foreign languages a strategic focus throughout the recruitment process. Set hiring targets for employees with foreign language skills based on your organizational goals. Prominently communicate interest in employees with multilingual and cross-cultural competencies in all recruiting resources and corporate communications.
Train talented candidates and employees who lack the required level of language proficiency. Immersive training, private coaching, online programs and blended learning methods are viable options. Consider personalized, sector-specific training. Not all roles require full proficiency. Many require a working knowledge of a language within a specialized domain.
Identify and cultivate a pipeline of multilingual talent. Partner with colleges and universities with international studies, foreign language and study-abroad programs. Offer internships and job opportunities for qualified students and recent graduates with the linguistic and global competencies your organization requires.
While being able to speak another language is essential to the current economic reality, the overriding benefit, in my opinion, is that it allows us to gain insight into other cultures. And the side effect of that is becoming a better person.