The Importance of Foreign Languages to American Professionals

The world is more global than it has ever been. International trade has become an increasingly important driver of economic growth. From 1980 to 2007, the percentage of global GDP linked to international trade increased from 42.1 percent to 62.1 percent. Companies such as Nike and McDonald’s have become global cultural icons. Cross-border communication is on the rise. Research conducted by the IMF and the International Telecommunications Union suggests that, “the number of minutes spent on cross-border telephone calls, on a per-capita basis, increased from 7.3 in 1991 to 28.8 in 2006.” In the global world that we live in today, monolingualism is becoming increasingly less feasible. Stronger foreign language skills would enable American professionals to obtain better foreign intelligence, foster scientific progress, and remain competitive in the global marketplace.

Strong language skills are an important part of the United States’ national security apparatus. In 2012, during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Laura Junor testified that “mission success is directly connected to [the Department of Defense’s] ability to communicate effectively with local populations and international partners.” In that same hearing, Tracey North, a Deputy Assistant Director in the Directorate of Intelligence at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) argued that the “success of the FBI’s mission is clearly dependent upon high quality language services and the ability to translate and analyze information in a timely manner.”

These statements are consistent with the hiring practices of a number of government departments. The number of language-designated positions in the Department of State increased 46% between December 2002 and November 2011. In FY 2011, although the Department of Defense filled 81% of its positions with foreign language requirements, only 28% of the positions were staffed with personnel who met the required proficiency level. Between 2001 and 2012, the FBI increased the number of linguists it employed by 85%. The statements from and hiring practices of the Department of Defense, Department of State, and FBI illustrate the relevance of strong foreign language skills to diplomacy and intelligence gathering.  

In addition to helping our nation’s security forces protect us, strong language skills also have implications for human health and scientific progress. The avian flu outbreak of 2004 was massive – it ultimately caused the deaths of millions of livestock and dozens of humans across Southeast Asia. In January 2004, Chinese researchers reported that the H5N1 flu virus had spread from birds to pigs and urged the international community to prepare for a potential epidemic. However, that research went undiscovered for roughly seven months because of weak foreign language skills. The World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization overlooked these findings, because they were initially published in smaller, less popular Chinese-language journals. It was only when one of the researchers, Chinese virologist Chen Hualan of the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, presented his research at the International Symposium on the Prevention and Control of SARS and Avian Influenza in Beijing on August 20, 2004, that the international community began to take notice. Tatsuya Amano, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, argues that “scientific knowledge generated in the field by non-native English speakers is inevitably under-represented, particularly in the dominant English-language journals…[rendering] local and indigenous knowledge unavailable in English.” The avian flu epidemic is an illustration of Tatsuya Amano’s proposition; it shows us the very real consequences of an English-dominated scientific community.

Not only do foreign language skills promote safety and security, but they can also empower American firms to capitalize on the opportunities presented by foreign markets. The 2014 U.S. Business Needs for Employees with International Expertise survey, a continuation of a 2003 project with a similar purpose, captured the perspectives of the managers and executives of a wide variety of U.S. firms. These companies spanned a number of industries, including manufacturing, financial services, and telecommunications. Furthermore, these firms differed in size (number of employees and sales volume) and international footprint. 50% of the respondents indicated that “foreign language skills are of great importance to them for both line management and professional staff management.” The corresponding figure from the 2003 survey was only 20%.  In 2003, 31% of respondents indicated that it was difficult to find U.S. nationals with the requisite foreign language skills. Although only 26% of respondents felt similarly in the 2014 survey, the available evidence suggests that there is a talent gap waiting to be filled. On the whole, these survey results indicate foreign language skills are the key to unlocking the potential that international business has to offer.  

Cross-cultural communication will only become more important as the borders between nation-states continue to blur. The evidence suggests that foreign language proficiency has very real consequences for U.S. security and strategic interests, disease prevention and scientific discovery, and access to profitable emerging markets. In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 79% of Americans 5 years and above only speak English. Moving forward, we will face the challenge of building a society of cross-cultural thinkers equipped with the language skills necessary to engage with people from all corners of the world.