When I was in middle school, I had the choice of learning French, Spanish or Latin. I didn’t have a particular interest in learning a foreign language, and had never left the country or had any international exposure to speak of. In my rather naive and simple estimation of my options, I understood that the benefit of learning French was that it was an “elegant” and sophisticated sounding language that chicks liked, learning Latin was good if you wanted to become a doctor since so much of the anatomy is based on Latin roots, and learning Spanish was good because Mexicans were over-running our borders. That was how I understood it. As it turns out, none of those are legitimate reasons for learning those languages and as I’ve progressed through my career and seen the careers of my schoolmates and the hundreds of people I know in my personal life, I’ve realized that learning a foreign language as an American usually has absolutely no utility whatsoever professionally.
Before you flay me for being “close-minded” or a knuckle-dragging engineer, just consider the points below. I’m just tellin’ it like it is:
- First and Second Gen Immigrants are WAY More Fluent Than You Are – Many of my friends and neighbors are either first or second generation immigrants from India, China, Taiwan and numerous other countries. Even if they didn’t spend much time in the native country, their parents speak nothing but – so they are VERY fluent. There are millions of such multi-lingual Americans entering the workforce each year, so why do they need you as an English-speaking American who learned a language on the side?
- Professionals in the Rest of the World Speak English – So what’s the point? I deal with a lot of international colleagues and foreign companies. I’ve also traveled a fair amount. I have never, ever had the need to learn another language because everyone else speaks English. Sure, maybe commoners in the Ukraine or a villager in China doesn’t speak English, but in business, those aren’t the people you’re going to interact with! You’re going to interface with business development directors, buyers, contractors and other “elite” English-speaking people overseas. In India and many other ex-British colonies, most of the educated class speaks English. Europeans our age usually speak English. Chinese that want our business put their English-speaking colleauges in the hot seat. It’s the universal language and everyone outside the US and Europe that wants to be a global player puts English speaking personnel in those positions. A rare exception is Japan, where we often have our bilingual employees of Japanese descent translate for us. But practically speaking, there’s no shortage of Japanese first and second gen immigrants in the US either.
- If Your Company Wants Diversity, They’ll Hire That Ethnicity, Not You – Even though you may speak Spanish, if you’re not Hispanic, you’re not “the real deal”. You don’t have Hispanic parents, you didn’t grow up watching telemundo and you don’t have the culture and perspective in your blood. When you interact with clients in Latin America, you won’t score the points for being “an American with broken Spanish skills” compared to being a Latino. Diversity means authentic representation of other cultures, backgrounds, etc., not just “speaking the language”.
- America is Increasingly Being Filled With Multi-Lingual Professionals – The days of the need for a multi-lingual white Americans are numbered. America’s greatest strength is its immigration and capitalistic society, right? Everyone in the world wants to come here and if we continue to do a half-way decent job of who we let in, we’ll continue the trend of seeing millions of immigrants entering the US workforce who can speak their language perfectly (obviously), and often times, they can speak English more eloquently than probably 90% of the Americans I’ve met as well. So, what’s the need for a lifetime American who speaks mildly fluently in foreign languages when there are millions of other candidates who fit the whole bill?
- You Lose Your Skills Immediately Upon Graduation – My wife is a German major, so I don’t have something against people who try to learn a foreign language (I’m just highlighting that it’s useless). She spent years in middle school and high school German, then majored in German in college since there was no education undergrad (she had to choose that major, then do the education Master’s program). She spent an entire summer in Germany and right after she graduated, we met Germans on vacation while in Europe who she conversed with daily. Now? She isn’t able to hold a conversation in German. Unless you have family speaking another language or go right into a country and speak the language, no matter how much training you had in school, you’ll lose it quickly.
- Companies Are Increasingly Hiring Locally. The US multi-linguist is No Longer Necessary – Aside from the fact that if a company is looking for non-English speaking employees they will hire the real deal, they’re also sick of paying for relocations and travel. We’re in a connected world now where people work virtually, video conferencing can be used for face-time and local is where it’s at. I’m seeing this in my company. I’m in a corporate-based group where it would have been unheard of to hire someone overseas to do one of our jobs, but we’re now hiring people in Latin America, Asia and Europe to manage issues in those regions instead of doing it from headquarters. Same job, a hell of a lot less money! You don’t have to pay someone overseas US wages, you don’t have to adhere to the US benefits expectations like healthcare, pension, severance, etc. and you don’t have to pay to fly them overseas constantly. This is the model companies are adapting.
I’m sure plenty of you will cite anecdotes about how remembering what banana means in Spanish helped you out at a client meeting or whatever, but the bottom line is, for kids in school now, this is a dying professional requirement IMO. Do I think all foreign language classes should be abolished? Nah, I think Americans could use even more international exposure, cultural exposure and stop being so US-centric. Most of the world thinks we’re idiots, and in large part we are. Spending a few years in your formative years learning about the language, foods, cultures and even traveling to foreign countries would do us all some good. But for kids spending all their electives on foreign languages or minoring in a foreign language thinking it’s going to give them that dream job, they may have spent their time on something more meaningful in the future job market IMO.
Your Turn – Do You Use Your Foreign Language Skills At All? Ever?