We Americans are often chastised for our “language ignorance”. It’s easy for us to forget that 94% of the world grew up speaking another language. On one hand we’re lucky; we were born into that tiny 6% of the world population that never has to learn another language to survive the global business world. On the other hand, we miss out on the enlightenment that comes with experiencing other languages and cultures.
Does this mean we Americans need to rush out and learn another language? A group of economists who’ve researched it claim that learning another language is a preposterous strategy.
The hard truth these economists uncovered, and as someone in the language business I can confirm, is that learning a language is a long, difficult, time consuming, expensive process that often ends in failure.
For example, economists have calculated that the average U.S. high school graduate will have spent about 1/12 of his entire schooling in foreign language classes (at a taxpayer cost of $8,000), yet upon graduation, fewer than 1% of high school students say they can speak another language well.
Not only that, but economists have calculated that the ROI on all that language training is disheartening: Speaking a language other than English increases one’s market value only 1% to 5%.
The one exception economists found to this gloomy report: learning English. They report, “Learning English is everything for those who don’t grow up as native speakers.” For this group, learning English propels one from hopelessly unemployed to highly desirable.
In my own travels overseas, I’ve seen time and again how desperate people are to learn English and how much credence this single skills brings to those who’ve made the time to master it. It’s not unusual for me to meet business people overseas who, in addition to the same work and family obligations you and I face in the states, are studying English up to eight hours per week and spending up to half of their salaries on English lessons for themselves or their children. And those with superior English skills always have stories to share about how this skill alone has made all the difference in their careers.
No single skill instantly transforms one’s life from rags to riches, but English comes close.
To all of you who do not speak English as your first language yet can still read this blog, I want you to know how impressed I am with you. You’ve achieved an incredible feat and you deserve whatever success comes your way as a result of it.
So, a question for my fellow native English speakers:
Should we be making similar efforts to learn another language? Well, that’s one way to expand your global communication skills but are you willing to make such a serious commitment?
And remember, if you’re among the 99% who struggled through years of high school French (or German or whatever) – at a cost of $8,000 to your local taxpayers – and thereafter could barely ask where the bathroom is, how well do you think you’ll perform now that you have a family, a career, and no one forcing you every night to do your homework?
May I suggest another option?
As opposed to learning another language, learn to speak better English. By better I don’t mean Shakespearean English, expanding your vocabulary, or learning to write like a lawyer or a doctor.
I mean simplifying your words, improving your diction, and slowing down.
On occasion I enjoy an opportunity to use the Spanish I’ve picked up over the years. I love the language! It’s rewarding to see the delight and surprise in a Latin American when I can connect with him/her in Spanish.
But you know what lights up their faces just as much? Speaking simple, clear English.
The reality is there are far more people worldwide learning to speak English as a second language than there are people who are native English speakers. (Heck, that’s the case in China alone!)
Chances are that if you’re in a business setting, the majority of your colleagues or customers speak some English already. But they’re still learning, and this is the #1 issue that we native speakers fail to recognize.
Just because your new friend in Asia, EMEA, or Latin America has introduced himself in English and said, “How are you?” in a clear tongue, we Americans quickly and wrongly jump to the conclusion that we’re speaking to an “English equal”.
Believe me, speaking general English (greetings, talking about family, ordering food at a restaurant) is not even close to the language mastery one needs to survive a business setting.
Do not judge your audience’s English with a yes/no box. The majority of the people you meet overseas are somewhere in the middle, and the second you resort to the same level of comfortable English you’d use at home, you are making a big mistake.
Despite what the commercials tell you, learning a language takes a long time and the overwhelming majority of those who begin the journey never finish it, especially when that language is not the make-or-break life changer that English is.
Instead of draining $500+ on a box of language CDs you’ll likely never finish, take that same money and invest it in a presentation skills class. In every city across the country there are communication experts who are happy to coach you on how to speak clearly and how to give a better presentation.
In one weekend you will learn more about how to communicate with a global audience than you will learn in months or years of foreign language lessons.
Even better, you’ll learn communication tips that benefit you in every scenario, from giving clear directions to your kids to giving a TED talk in a major city.
English is the global language.
If you’re among the 6% who grew up a native speaker, thank your lucky stars and learn to respect your global colleagues by speaking a better version of the language you already know.
If you’re among the other 94%, I applaud you for making the effort to learn it, and I encourage you to remind Gringos like me to speak the clear, simple, easy-to-understand English you deserve to hear.