Published in Forbes, May 27, 2011
Written by Michael Schutzler
Thanks to the Internet, even the smallest company can be a multinational. Over two billion people are online and an additional 500 million will connect for the first time this year. Over four billion people have a cell phone with SMS capability and many of them will upgrade to an Internet-enabled smartphone in coming years. Technology has unleashed a global market unconstrained by space, time or travel barriers.
Language is the one material barrier that remains. As technology delivers access to a worldwide arena of talent and customers, effective multilingual communication becomes an essential tool for productivity – and a competitive weapon for those who master it. English is clearly a factor in this evolving business dynamic, but it is not the solution. In fact, broad adoption of English as the language of commerce is the root of the challenge and opportunity looming.
For over 60 years, the United States has reigned as the leading international force in academics, politics, economics and technical innovation. This global influence combined with our stubborn insistence on communicating in English has finished the work begun by Great Britain, elevating our language to primacy around the world. More than one billion people are learning English in the pursuit of economic and social ascension. In China alone there are over 300 million people learning English right now.
It seems reasonable to conclude that English is the only language you need to master, but this complacency breeds catastrophe. English is not replacing other languages; it is merely becoming the most common form of social currency. As English usage proliferates worldwide, it’s becoming less of a differentiator or advantage. In fact, it’s making bilingual the new prerequisite. Imagine a world in which everyone speaks English. You just graduated with an accounting degree. Congratulations. Prepare to compete with accounting graduates fluent in at least two languages. Given equal technical qualifications, who do you think will get the job? The same argument holds for a 20-year seasoned business executive. Do you really think your experience is enough? Brazil, Russia, India, China – and a host of European, Latin American and Asian nations – are producing expert executives with outstanding resumes and multi-lingual fluency.
Our nation was built by the genius and brawn of immigrants, yet tragically we fail to take advantage of a uniquely American asset – the vast influx of language skills from every new entrant into our workforce. Instead of welcoming each new immigrant as a potential instructor of his or her language in exchange for learning English, we have marginalized our immigrant population and reject their mother tongues while offering antiquated, often inaccessible English training. Why? Because it keeps the newbies in their place. There is no harm in declaring English the official language, but there is immense damage and lost opportunity if it is the only language.
Imagine an America in which every high school graduate speaks at least two languages and many speak three or four languages. It’s not unreasonable. The Dutch, who are among the greatest international business building nations in history, have been doing this for hundreds of years. In this era of billions of people connected online, we can easily find eager language exchange partners. In the process of sharing language skills, we learn correct pronunciation as well as the cultural nuances needed to convey and understand meaning.