Global trade requires foreign language skills

As subsequent administrations have promoted new initiatives to keep the United States competitive in a globalized world, it’s worth noting this fact: Only one of the men running the five largest U.S. corporations is fluent in any language other than English.

Thanks to his time helming General Motors’ Brazilian operations, GM’s CEO speaks Portuguese. But he’s a corner office exception: the CEOs of Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, Ford Motor, and General Electric — none of these highly paid executives can make a contact or negotiate a deal in another language.

Several presidents have spokenĀ out to “keeping America competitive” by encouraging innovation through tax breaks for corporate research spending and promoting math and science study.

But some experts worry that the administration’s current push doesn’t do anything to address the USA’s globalization Achilles’ heel: Americans’ lack of foreign language skills and general global awareness. “Competitiveness is not just about training more engineers and scientists. That’s just part of it,” says Angel Cabrera, president of Thunderbird, The Garvin School of International Management in Glendale, Ariz.

History, geography, and prosperity all conspired to leave Americans ill-equipped for globalized commerce. Traditional isolationism made some suspicious of foreign tongues and peoples. A continental country isolated by massive oceans, the USA felt itself a land apart. Prosperity fostered complacency.

No longer. Though English is the global default language for business, monolingual executives place themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Increasingly, they’ll be up against foreign counterparts who understand not only their own language and culture but also those of the USA.

“Like it or not, knowledge of the world is no longer a luxury,” says Michael Levine, executive director for education at the Asia Society. “Other countries are moving ahead with their educational systems, and it’s certainly a competitive advantage for them.”

Example: In China, more than 200 million students study English. In the USA, just 24,000 American kids are studying Chinese.

In September, the Asia Society released a study with the Goldman Sachs Foundation that called for overhauling public education to provide students far greater international experience. With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the society has established pilot schools in New York, Los Angeles, and Charlotte. Seven additional schools are set to open within the next year in Denver, Philadelphia, Austin, Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, and Boston.

The schools use a distinctive curriculum that takes an international approach to all subjects and gives students greater opportunities to travel and connect with children in other lands via the Internet, Levine says.

In retooling for future global competition, the USA has a long way to go. Less than 1% of today’s high school students are studying the languages likely to be among the most important to the USA’s future: Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Korean, Japanese, Russian, and Urdu, according to the Education Department.

Though the president didn’t mention it in last week’s speech, the administration earlier this month unveiled a $114 million program aimed at increasing the number of Americans fluent in such “critical” languages. The initiative is motivated largely by national security concerns but is expected to have spillover economic benefits. A pilot project in Portland, Ore., already has started teaching Chinese to kindergarten students.

Rising interest in language skills

Corporate interest may be stirring. Today in Washington, the Committee for Economic Development, a business-funded group, will release a study urging greater emphasis on international studies and foreign languages.

For now, corporations get around their executives’ inability to speak other languages by hiring foreigners to run their overseas units or relying heavily on translators. Companies such as Wal-Mart often send executives to Thunderbird for crash courses on foreign languages and cultures. In recent years, the school also has seen new customers from small companies that are venturing abroad for the first time.

But Cabrera, a native of Spain, says European and Asian corporations better understand the concrete commercial benefits of a sometimes fuzzy concept such as global awareness. “Most people (in the USA) think in order to succeed, you just have to have a strong background in finance or marketing. … (But) business at the end of the day is about relationships with people,” he says.

Michael Eskew, CEO of UPS, saw first-hand the difficulties involved in bridging the language gap early in his career while an expatriate in Germany. The Americans’ first-name informality often rubbed their culturally conservative German counterparts the wrong way. So did the Americans’ conviction that they knew best about everything, says Eskew, whose own linguistic skills are limited to scholastic Latin.

UPS, which operates in more than 200 countries, has modified its approach in the intervening three decades. Eskew, who became CEO in 2002, established a “global trade curricula” for its more than 407,000 employees on the company website and seeks new hires who speak multiple languages.

“With the next generation, we need to do a better job of this, especially languages like Chinese,” Eskew says. “We’re going to be partnering with these people. We need to understand their culture and their language.”

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