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Dr. Bill Rivers is the Executive Director for the Joint National Committee for Languages – National Council for Language and International Studies, and a leader in U.S. language policy development.
We’ve all heard about the importance of improving education in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. But did you know that foreign languages are at the heart of our national STEM sector’s ability to communicate, innovate, collaborate, and compete? The $15-billion, highly-technological U.S. language industry enables U.S. STEM businesses to reach foreign markets worth $1.5 trillion. In fact, languages really are as much a part of STEM as biology, engineering, information technology, and many other fields.
Language has long been a STEM research subject. For over 50 years, the federal government has funded R&D in language fields such as theoretical and applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, computational linguistics, language acquisition, human language technology, translation, interpreting studies, and machine translation, among others. Funding derives from every STEM field in the public sector, including the National Science Foundation, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Institutes of Health, among many others. This funding has resulted in breakthroughs for both the private and public sectors, such as the basic machine translation tools used throughout industry and government.
Language is a high-tech STEM industry. It is impossible to manage the 21st-century content explosion without robust, constantly evolving technology. Localization is now entirely digital, relying on numerous advanced technologies including workflow systems, translation management systems, translation memories, terminology and data mining, complex desktop publishing, content management systems, and machine translation, among others. Human translators and interpreters are no longer mere linguists; they work alongside computer-aided and automated language tools. Language teaching is also increasingly technologized, especially for “long-tail” languages in emerging markets like Africa and Asia. Innovative technologies have significant improved the way languages are taught and learned, allowing students to learn languages faster and retain them longer.
America’s STEM industries depend on the language industry. The work of traditional STEM businesses is now inevitably global; advances hardly occur in just one country or market. Multilingual communication is intrinsic to today’s scientific collaboration and progress, which means the language industry is fundamental to furthering every aspect of STEM professions and business. STEM companies in numerous sectors depend on the professional language industry to access more than $1.5 trillion in overseas markets.
To those who pin one against the other, STEM vs. languages, we would argue that they are one in the same. In this day and age, one cannot truly progress without the other. Technology has undoubtedly improved the way we teach and learn foreign languages, while competency in foreign languages opens the doors to international STEM markets and results in more collaboration in STEM fields. Now you can see how the undeniable link between the STEM and language fields comes full circle.
So in the struggle for education reform, language instruction should not be discounted, especially by supporters of STEM fields.