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The Council on Foreign Relations: Teach your kids Manadarin

June 27, 2012

A “Languages for Jobs” Initiative

Policy Innovation Memorandum No. 24

Authors: Terrence G. Wiley, President, Center for Applied Linguistics, Sarah Catherine Moore, Language Policy Research Network, Center for Applied Linguistics, and Margaret S. Fee, Language Policy Research Network, Center for Applied Linguistics

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Council on Foreign Relations Press

Release Date

June 2012




The promotion of foreign language instruction should be a national priority. In an increasingly competitive international economy, a workforce with more market-relevant foreign language skills is a strategic economic asset for the United States. Yet foreign language education is on the decline, particularly at the primary level when foreign languages are best learned. Federal policy is not stepping up. Recent federal efforts to promote foreign language instruction are not designed to have a broad-based impact and have been focused almost exclusively on achieving national security goals. U.S. economic competitiveness goals are equally important, but there are no comprehensive efforts to promote the instruction of languages, including Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, German, and Hindi, in local school districts where foreign language education must occur to improve proficiency more broadly. The federal government should launch an interagency “Languages for Jobs” initiative, with funding levels at least equal to security language programs. As part of the initiative, the Department of Education would develop foreign language education accountability metrics and primary-level immersion programming that leverages the country’s existing multilingual population.

The Economic Case for Foreign Language Skills

The global economy is shifting away from the English-speaking world. Since 1975, the English-speaking share of global GDP has fallen significantly and will continue to fall. The Chinese economy will surpass the U.S. economy in size soon after 2030. Latin America (Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking) and South Asia (Hindi- and Urdu-speaking) are growing strongly as well. Exports have accounted for half of postrecession U.S. economic growth, and future U.S. growth will increasingly depend on selling U.S. goods and services to foreign consumers who do not necessarily speak English.

In a competitive global export market, there will be a premium on foreign language skills and international competency. It is an old adage that you can buy in any language, but you must sell in the language of your customer. Business services such as banking, insurance, and architecture are the fastest-growing U.S. export sectors, and selling these services requires employees able to work effectively in non-English-speaking countries. In a survey of large U.S. corporations conducted ten years ago—when exports were less critical for the U.S. economy—30 percent responded that personnel with insufficient international skills prevented their companies from fully exploiting business opportunities. Eighty percent believed their sales would increase if they had more internationally competent staff.

The widespread use of English as the leading global second language, especially in business, does not offset the disadvantage faced by monolingual Americans. A 2011 survey of more than one hundred executives in large U.S. businesses found foreign nationals have an advantage in competing for international jobs. Three-quarters agreed that language skills made it easier for foreign nationals to work in the United States than for U.S. nationals to work overseas, leaving Americans at a significant disadvantage at a time when U.S.-based multinational companies are growing faster abroad than at home.

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