Let’s Prepare Future Graduates for the Global Economy

This is a tale of two college campuses in the U.S.

At College A, you sense it immediately: upon entering the gates of campus or walking the greens, you see faces of all colors, shapes, and features; you hear voices in different tones, styles, and languages; you witness gesticulations from subtle to vibrant.

At College B, there is less of a dichotomy. The cacophony of voices might be more singular than opposing. The background and ethnicity of the campus body, especially students, might be more similar than different.

Both campuses represent a slice of the 4,700+ degree-granting colleges and universities scattered across the United States today. And yet — both campuses seek to graduate their students with skills that meet the needs of a 21st-century economy wherein one of every five jobs in the U.S. alone is tied to international trade.

No matter the diversity levels currently on campus, college life is always somewhat of a bubble for students. And yet, we are more connected as a whole, despite geography or superficial differences. Understanding and valuing one another, especially those with opposing or differing views, is not a nice-to-have, but a necessity in any professional setting — whether a student decides to pursue humanitarian work, pitch in at a startup, engage in public diplomacy, explore a STEM field, or otherwise.

Learning another language is a gateway toward furthering understanding the world in addition to being a tool that enables unencumbered movement and exchange in an interconnected economy. Not enough of today’s graduates are choosing to study another language and its corresponding culture — or they don’t have access to an opportunity to receive an immersive overseas experience.

Weaving Language and Culture Into the Campus Fabric

To be sure, acquiring a second (or third or fourth) language is not easy for students who did not grow up in a home that speaks in multiple tongues — but this is less and less the case for undergraduates embarking upon higher education. Currently in the U.S., there are approximately 60 million households that speak a language other than English at home.

It is time for colleges and universities to adapt to fit the needs of their student populations.

So, here are some hard facts: According to enrollment data in U.S. higher education from 2013, only seven percent were enrolled in a foreign language course. The most common languages those students were enrolled in were Spanish and French. Compare that to the world’s most spoken language: Chinese (over one billion speakers speak Mandarin and other dialects of Chinese language). Collectively, only 10 percent of American undergraduates even study abroad to experience another culture. When they do, speaking another language is an exception, not the rule.

In 2014 alone, over half-a-million job postings in the U.S. called for multilingual candidates. When over 40 million U.S. jobs are tied to international trade, and 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside of American borders, it’s only a matter of time before all jobs expect employees who can operate in multiple languages.

This is compounded by the evolving demographics of the U.S. In 2015, Northern Illinois University surveyed businesses to link language with the state’s economic competitiveness. The results are revealing: One out of two (49 percent) Illinois employers report that by 2020, their hiring practices would favor college graduates that speak more than one language, citing Spanish and Mandarin as the most in-demand languages for Illinois businesses.

In another study of American business leaders, 80 percent of 800 U.S. executives surveyed agreed that their business would increase if their staff had international experience. A quick search on the job site Indeed.com in August 2016 brought up just over 15,000 postings in Washington, D.C. that require or desire foreign language skills in its candidate.

Countries of Southeast Asia (often referred to as ASEAN) are currently influencing the global economy, with almost nine of ten U.S. businesses stating that they anticipate ASEAN markets will become increasingly vital to their operations. And while the most recent survey on foreign language enrollments in U.S. colleges and universities (MLA, 2013) showed an increase in enrollments in language courses in these critical world languages compared to European languages, keep in mind that the overall percentage of U.S. undergrads enrolled in a foreign language course remains a modest seven percent.
 For young Americans who are embarking upon their education in order to prepare to become leaders in a 21st century global economy, this is sad news to report. The good news is that there is a remedy: language paired with cultural immersion.

Immersion Settings Overseas Increase Language Gains

Recent research proves that language ability can increase the value and substantive impact of any amount of time spent immersed in another culture, even during a few weeks. It enables free movement and communication. When students return from overseas, they don’t talk most about the sites and the history and the culture; they talk most about the people and late evening exchanges with new acquaintances, impromptu meetings on the street with strangers, everyday experiences with host families, and intimate conversations with new and true friends.

Our ongoing research demonstrates the effect that study abroad has on language and cultural abilities and the impact of language ability on the study abroad experience. The kind of deep immersion in societies and cultures enabled by language induces undeniable changes in cultural perspective and understanding. There is also evidence that developing language skills also improves the so-called “transversal skills” of critical and creative thinking, leadership, tolerance of ambiguity, collaborative mindsets — all critical aspects of character building and all valuable assets in professional work environments — key indicators that language matters.

In an increasingly interconnected world, we need to encourage, foster, and provide opportunities so that young Americans will gain the global competencies that will define our future workforce and, arguably, our future role in the global landscape.

As stated earlier, one in three mid- and large-size employers in the U.S. are working with global or multicultural clientele and seek graduates with language and cultural competency. In order to prepare future graduates to meet the global workforce with a robust set of skills, we must educate these future leaders at home, in classrooms, and overseas in cultures where language matters.

Tell us how you will prepare and engage your student class of 2020 to meet the world.

Are you a leader in globalization on campus? Do your students practice language skills during their study abroad experiences? Does your campus have an interesting story to tell? Add your voice and stay updated on LanguageMatters.World.

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