Language has long been taken for granted in the United States, not only among policymakers and business leaders who control the country’s economic clout, but also among the citizenry in general. Language is often a legislative afterthought, or even worse, considered a “non-issue” in the minds of most decision-makers. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Professional language concerns, which are critical to the success—or failure—of countless public- and private-sector initiatives, are finally being spoken for. The Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) has joined with the National Council for Languages and International Studies (NCLIS) to launch the American Enterprise Language Advocacy (ALEA), the first-ever professional language lobby in the United States.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people five and older who don’t speak English at home has exploded five times faster in the United States than the nation’s overall population growth over the past three decades. Spanish speakers account for 62 percent of non-English speakers, but they are far from alone. Chinese, Tagalog, French, Vietnamese, German and Korean all have more than 1 million speakers as well. From a business perspective, the U.S. language industry is a $20+ billion enterprise, representing thousands of companies and hundreds of thousands of jobs as translators, interpreters, software developers, engineers, project managers and a host of other professions. Their contributions fuel some $1.5 trillion in U.S. exports annually.
As globalization continues to grow, the need for multilingual skills will increase exponentially. The problem, however, is that the United States doesn’t have the language infrastructure in place—or even in the planning stage—to meet multilingual demands. To promote awareness of America’s critical language situation, ALEA’s initiatives will primarily focus on two areas:
1. Increased federal funding for language education in America’s schools. More rigorous language instruction will not only build a stronger framework for serving America’s rapidly changing demographic base, it will also prepare the country’s next generation of workers to compete more effectively on a global scale.
2. Policies that put American businesses on a par with global competitors. For decades, other countries have placed far more emphasis on, and investment in, the role language plays in furthering international trade and commerce. The discrepancy needs to change. Language can either be a boon for this country or stand in our way. It can win votes or lose elections; it can help stop the spread of disease or block the flow of information that saves lives; and it can empower a new generation of skilled, global talent or erode our country’s ability to compete. It’s time to put the power of language to work on behalf of—instead of against—this country.
Hans Fenstermacher is Chief Executive Officer of the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), the world’s largest association for language localization professionals.