Our deficiency in languages hurts us in the marketplace - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Our deficiency in languages hurts us in the marketplace

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Posted: Tuesday, June 21, 2005 12:26 am | Updated: 9:52 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Americans tend pridefully to think their nation the superior of its neighbor to the south, and in areas such as international power projection and economic clout the United States does indeed far outstrip Mexico.

But in one respect we find ourselves sadly deficient, to our considerable disadvantage.

That deficiency is linguistic knowledge. As Bruce Greenberg, whose real-estate consulting work focuses on northern Mexico, told the annual Arizona Town Hall in Prescott last week, the Mexican state of Sonora does much more than Arizona to ensure that learning a second language is a part of their students' education.

Greenberg, who despite his chosen career speaks only a little Spanish himself, describes his inability as “embarrassing” — but our self-imposed language gap can be much more than that, as America found out just after the 9/11 atrocity.

In those dark days, the FBI found itself so short of translation capacity in Arabic that it had to make a public appeal for help from those with knowledge of that language.

But national security is not the only area in which being linguistic laggards hurts us. As trade becomes increasingly global, the truth of the answer a Japanese businessman once gave a reporter who asked him what the most important language in the world for business was — “My client's” — stands out with increasing clarity.

As the Tribune's Le Templar reported Monday, foreign exports contribute $12 billion a year to Arizona's economy, with the lion's share — more than $3 billion — accounted for by Mexico. That sum could likely be considerably greater, but for Americans' lack of basic understanding about how to conduct business in Mexico — a shortcoming noted in the final recommendations of a group at the Town Hall that included Greenberg and other advocates and policy-makers. They called for a revamp of our state's educational system to place greater emphasis on multicultural and multilingual learning.

Let it not be supposed that this must come at the expense of our own culture and language. The notion that the primacy of English — currently and for the foreseeable future the international lingua franca — is somehow threatened by the presence of Spanish in the classroom, or on store signs and billboards, is really pretty laughable. And in countries such as Denmark, where nearly everyone speaks a second language (in the Danes' case, English), the native tongue has hardly dwindled to extinction.

The Arizona Town Hall's recommendations for greater efforts in language education deserve to be taken seriously and implemented in earnest. Because a xenophobic reluctance to learn the tongues of major trading partners is worse than misguided.

It's uncompetitive.

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