If your strategy is to trade only with people that speak English that’s going to be a poor strategy.
Top US economist Larry Summers recently tweeted this in relation to America’s focus on its so-called special relationship with the UK. And he’s right. The economic impact on the US – or any other country – that closes off its trade barriers with countries that are different to it would be enormous.
Language matters on a large-scale national level and at the level of smaller businesses. One famous cheese steak shop in Philadelphia, Geno’s, used to refuse sales to customers placing their orders in languages other than English. Its sign announcing this to customers was only taken down in 2011.
When just one small business decides to take this closed approach, the effect on the wider economy is negligible. With the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, however, there now is a resounding protectionist sentiment in the US – which could have a much bigger effect on the economy. Trump’s emphasis on an “America First” trade policy is in stark contrast with decades of the US being the biggest promoter of free trade. This isolationist rhetoric seems to be closing the door to exchange, innovation and growth. And yet, free trade has made us all prosperous.
The rise of ancient civilisations, China, Egypt, Greece and Rome, came down to success in trade across cultures. Early traders already knew that they needed to understand their clients to produce a good economic return across language divides. Among them was Marco Polo, the successful multilingual merchant doing business from the Mediterranean to China.
Similarly today, clued up entrepreneurs will have multiple languages on their radar. I found numerous examples when researching my book Linguanomics. What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism?. Take Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who is learning Mandarin. His wife’s family is Chinese, so you might say he is personally motivated to do so. But he also has a huge market-driven incentive, as his company has long been trying to penetrate China’s market.
In this, he follows an old mantra that was most famously expressed by Willy Brandt, the former chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany: “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. But if I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen [then you have to speak German]”. This shows that now too, the customer is king.
The economic power of language
Britain’s push for fresh markets outside the European Union is likely to lead to new language needs. Companies responding to this challenge will depend on a multilingual skills pool for cross-border trade. This needs free movement since many British people claim that they are bad at speaking languages other than English. Alas, current government statistics show that the UK already loses about 3.5% of its GDP every year as a result of a lack of language skills in the workforce.
By contrast, the US with its historically rooted cultural mix has a vast language pool that lies hidden beneath its apparent veneer of monolingualism. In fact, despite Geno’s insistence, English is not the official language of the US. This is in recognition of the country’s diverse cultural make up. But if language monochrony is strategically promoted in the US at the expense of the dormant heterogeneity, the economy will suffer. Indeed, recent studies have shown that one in six US businesses is losing out due to lack of language skills and cultural awareness in their workforce.
Other countries display how it’s possible to exploit their multilingualism as a resource with exchange value in the globalised economy. In Switzerland, for example, the economic value of multilingualism is estimated to be 10% of its GDP. This is because people in many businesses and organisations can easily operate in several languages.
If America’s recent protectionist tendencies catch on in the UK and EU, countries like China and India, as well as Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey are likely to gain. In this more diversified world economy English may in due course well become less prominent. Its diminishing position would be ironic if it happened as a result of trying to “make America great again”.
Did you know that our world has about 6,500 languages? Sadly, only 20 percent of Americans speak a language other than English, but I think there is a solution to this. Over the past couple years, I have begun to notice that in many schools in the U.S., including mine, students don’t start the process of learning a new language until middle school. It would be extremely beneficial if schools instead thought about putting more money into acquiring bilingual programs for grammar school students.
The easiest way for someone to become bilingual is to start at a very young age, because their brain absorbs the sounds and rules of a new language naturally just like their native tongue. The older you get, the harder it is to learn a language because you have to study grammar rules and work around your already developed first language.
Some people think that a child only has room for one language in their life, and that to learn a second one, they would find it confusing. This is not true and in fact some places, such as Switzerland, have students learn up to two additional languages and by the time they graduate high school many of them are even trilingual.
A new language is one of the most rewarding experiences for anyone, but even more so at a young age. “During the first three years of life, the foundations for thinking, language, visions, attitude, aptitude, and other characteristics are laid down. It would be a waste not to use a child’s natural ability to learn during his or her most vital years when learning a second language is as easy as learning the first,” says Ronald Kotulak, author of “Inside the Brain.”
Some of the most crucial benefits of being bilingual are that a child’s focus, memory, planning and multitasking skills are better than if they are monolingual. Children can also ignore distractions easier because the part of their brain called the “executive function” is stronger in bilinguals, and this of course would benefit their academic performance in the classroom.
A second language can also help when traveling, especially a common one such as Spanish or French. Vacations to foreign countries would be more enjoyable, and it would open people’s minds to the different cultures of the world. My mother and father are fluent in Italian and English, so I know what it is like to be around someone bilingual.
A few years ago, my family and I visited Italy, where most of our relatives live. It was an amazing experience, but I felt a little bit out of place not being fully proficient in the language. Now, I think about how different that trip would have been if I had been able to communicate better. Everyday activities like listening to local music, watching a movie, or just getting a cup of coffee would have been effortless if I had known Italian.
Bilingualism at a young age also leads to many advantages in the long run, such as getting into a good college and having more career options. A second or third language can boost your chances of getting into a more academically advanced institution. Foreign language SAT tests are a great way of standing out during the college admission process. It’s important to show them what you’re capable of, and it can give you a head start by allowing you to complete the basic language requirement before other students. As the world is becoming more globalized, knowing a foreign language in business is also valuable. For example, someone who speaks Spanish has the advantage of communicating with people from 21 different countries worldwide. When applying for a new job, companies will certainly take this into consideration. If schools would teach languages from kindergarten through high school, more students would have the chance to go on to college, and have successful careers.