Employers in the United States are increasingly reliant on multilingual employees to advance their goals, but many have lost business opportunities because they don’t have staff who can communicate in languages other than English, a new report from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages found.
Based on a survey of 1,200 managers and human resources professionals with knowledge of their organization’s foreign language needs, the report highlights the critical demand for employees who can communicate in multiple languages.
A third of the survey respondents reported that their needs for foreign language skills were not being met by current employees. Overall, Spanish, Mandarin, French, Japanese, and German were the most in-demand languages, the report found.
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages commissioned the report and survey as part of its Lead with Languages initiative, a public awareness campaign that aims to make language learning a national priority. The report advocates for an education system that prepares graduates to become proficient in other languages and cultures, and maintains a pipeline of prospective employees that U.S. industry needs to compete in a “global economy.”
“We’re asking the business community to stand side-by-side with us and advocate for language programs,” said Howard Berman, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “We see language learning as a core discipline that can be paired with other disciplines, like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math education), to strengthen students so they can compete.”
But while the ability to communicate in more than one language remains a highly coveted skill, it does not top the list of things most employers are looking for, said Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
“In the United States, one of the most multicultural countries, you’re going to be dealing with people of all races, of all ethnicities, of all socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Smith, who is not connected to the ACTFL survey.
But when employers talk about the “21st century skills, being bilingual is not in the top five, in fact, it probably doesn’t even come up until, maybe in the next 20,” Smith said. Employers are more likely to place an emphasis on things like global and cultural awareness, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, creativity, and leadership, she said.
Recent national studies from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the American Councils for International Education have painted a bleak picture of the state of foreign-language education in the nation’s K-12 schools—which have a labor problem when it comes to multilingualism.
Reports released in 2017 by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the American Councils for International Education found that public schools and state departments of education are struggling to find qualified world language instructors and are unequipped to track local and national trends on language learning.
The American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Commission on Language Learning, a group of education, research, business, and government leaders, produced its report in response to a congressional request to determine how language learning influences economic growth and the productivity of future generations. The academy called for more concerted efforts to allow English-learners to continue to study their home languages, promotion of study-abroad opportunities that allow all students to immerse themselves in the cultures and language of other countries, and a commitment from the nation’s colleges and universities to train more foreign language teachers.
“The language education community can’t sit back and wait,” said ACTFL’s Berman. “We have to show where languages fit in when it comes to preparing students for the future. We have to show our value.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.