The role of language and global education in today’s world

Laurie Stevens

Vibrant colored flags from 20 different countries wave in the wind outside the Chattanooga School of Language (CSL) this week to commemorate International Education Week.

A joint initiative by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education, this week is a time to celebrate and acknowledge the benefit of international education and exchanges worldwide. Its purpose is to raise awareness of the programs and organizations that help prepare Americans for a global environment and potential travel and study abroad opportunities.

Perhaps it should also be a time to reflect on the role and benefit of global education and language learning in our schools, businesses and homes.

When I first tell people about the language school, many times they respond with a look of surprise that a language school offering 15 different languages exists in Chattanooga. CSL not only exists, but thrives, six years after its creation in 2011, because of one crucial point: the growing demand for language instruction in Chattanooga and surrounding areas. There is a need and interest in our growing city among people of all ages and backgrounds for instruction in Russian, Spanish, French, German, Korean, American Sign Language, Mandarin, Japanese, Greek, Italian, Arabic, Portuguese, Danish, English and Polish. Yes, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The Chattanooga of 2017 is quite different from the Chattanooga of a decade ago. Now a city of more than 75 spoken languages, Chattanooga is an international city whose community members represent this diversity in language, background and culture. 

The South is booming with international companies and factories. A simple look at the economic development successes in the South reveals prominent foreign companies. In recent years Tennessee has attracted several large foreign forces. 

According to a 2016 article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tennessee led the nation in direct foreign investment. Collectively, the foreign-based businesses expanding in East Tennessee invested more than $5 billion between 2013 and 2016 and added more than 2,500 jobs.

More and more employers are seeking workers to be a part of their team who can speak more than one language and are equipped to work with people of other cultures. Individuals with these skills have a competitive advantage in the workplace. 

According to a report published this year by New American Economy, languages ranked eighth among the most in-demand skills across all occupations. The report also shows that job postings directed at workers with bilingual skills more than doubled between 2010 and 2015.*

In today’s increasingly globalized economy, having at least two languages in your skill set will create a definite advantage for you in the business world. Major international corporations are recognizing the immense benefits of having multilingual and multicultural employees on their teams. Effective communication across languages and cultures is an invaluable tool for relationship building and economic leverage. And it requires more than just Google Translate. 

Language is not just a series of words. Language is culture. Culture is language. In fact, according to a study by the U.S. Committee on Economic Development, American businesses lose more than $2 billion each year because of language and cultural misunderstandings.

Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates has said many times, “I feel pretty stupid that I don’t know any foreign languages.” He expressed his admiration that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was able to deliver a 2014 speech and Q&A in Beijing entirely in Mandarin. Zuckerberg told students at Tsinghua University that his reason for learning Mandarin was partly because his wife and in-laws speak the language, but also because a language helps one understand a country's culture. It’s important to mention that China banned Facebook in 2009, so it’s highly likely that Zuckerberg was making an effort to learn the country’s official standard language for both personal and business reasons.

In addition to the competitive advantage you have if you know another language, research shows numerous cognitive, social and emotional benefits of language learning. Studies have shown a connection between language learning and higher academic achievement among students, including test scores, as well as increased empathy for people who speak other languages and are from other cultures.

Evident in the language school’s 260 percent growth rate in student enrollment and the expansion of our language programs with local schools, organizations and international corporations like Volkswagen between 2012 and 2016, the market of professionals, parents, school administrators and corporations who understand the need and immense benefits of language learning and cultural competence, continues to grow in the Chattanooga and surrounding areas.

I believe that how we continue to respond as a community to our increasingly diverse demographics, the indisputable connection and dependency on people all over the world, and the important role of language learning and cultural awareness in our professional and personal lives, will be a determining factor in future developments and opportunities for us as individuals, community, state and country.

For more information on learning another language or how to start a language program at your school or business, visit chattanoogalanguage.com

*Selected research gathered with the help of Solution Scholars & Co.  

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