The world is changing. Between political conflict and economic competition, the way we relate to other countries has shifted; however, few schools have changed their language instruction. Most high school students can choose from Spanish, Italian, French, German, or Latin. Very few high schools, almost none of them public schools, offer what the U.S. Department of State considers the largest “critical languages”: Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin, Korean, Persian, Russian, or Turkish. The government actively recruits speakers of these languages, and they even offer scholarships for students to study them in-country.
Colleges are doing a better job of addressing the need for language skills, with many offering intensive courses in a few critical languages. Still, the government has recognized that many smaller nations are beginning to play a critical role in the world, whether because they are growing their economies or because of political and social conflict. Only twelve universities in the United States offer Pashto, the language of Afghanistan, and only five go beyond the elementary level. This implies that the government has had to train hundreds of people—an expensive proposition—and rely on native speakers over the course of our conflict.
What does this imply for businesses? Adecco has offices in Hong Kong, Slovenia, and Finland. With so few North American universities offering Cantonese (19), Slovenian (4), or Finnish (18), what can Americans really bring to the table at such a far-reaching company? It’s true that many foreign professionals are proficient in English, but we shouldn’t rely on that. Speaking someone else’s language conveys an interest in their culture and way of life. It shows that you are not a stereotypically ethnocentric American, which can have a positive effect on the business relationship that is formed.
But for such a business relationship to become a reality (at least, for it to exist outside of Spanish-speaking or Francophone countries), businesses would have to put more money into training employees, which seems unlikely in this economy. Whether at Adecco, in the government, or in other internationally-focused fields, people can become much more competitive candidates by speaking languages like Urdu or Serbian. I believe that students need to be made more aware of how their choice of language can affect their lives. Schools need to make more of an effort to generate interest in less commonly taught languages, and they need to make resources available to students who want to go beyond our current standards and discover just how useful and fascinating other languages are.
If you’re interested in learning more but need some assistance, we suggest looking into these government scholarships programs to help you get started: