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Sorry STEM, Google just made the case for more foreign language education Posted by on Jan 1, 2018 in education, Language Learning, Language News

Science, technology, engineering, and math are not the only (or perhaps even the most) valuable 21st century skills. Even Google says so.

In the last decade, American education has been increasingly concerned with promoting STEM subjects. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of students enrolled in STEM degree programs increased 36%. Then-President Obama asked Congress for a $4 billion investment in computer science in K-12 schools. States like Michigan now allow high school students to fulfill foreign language credit requirements by learning to code. Government officials in North Carolina and Kentucky have proposed defunding non-technical majors in state universities, on the basis that they “don’t get someone a job”.

But Google, of all sources, just revealed the importance of other, softer skills for emerging leaders and managers.

“Google” by Carlos Luna on Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Washington Post recently reported on a 2013 Google study of its hiring, firing, and promotion data since 1998. The study, called Project Oxygen, sought to identify key skills and behaviors in the company’s managers. Surprisingly, the data revealed that among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top leaders and managers, STEM expertise comes in last.

So, what came out on top? “The seven top characteristics of [managerial] success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.” Strong technical skills are a must, particularly for engineers, designers, and so on. But as employees look beyond individual contributions and into management roles, people skills are paramount.

The soft skills valued in leaders are byproducts of foreign language acquisition.

The majority of these soft skills are byproducts of the hard skill that continues to be put on the back burner or brushed aside entirely: learning a foreign language.

  • Communicating and listening well: Here’s an obvious one—bilinguals are better communicators. When learning another language, understanding others and making yourself understood is always front of mind.
  • Possessing different values and points of view: You may have heard that learning a new language provides a new perspective on the world; that statement isn’t just a feel-good catchphrase. Studies out of Chicago show that even young children exposed to multiple languages are better at understanding other people’s perspectives.
  • Having empathy toward others: A 2015 study from University of Chicago indicated bilingual children are more likely to be empathetic. Struggling your way through a second language can be humbling, making it much easier to put yourself in others’ shoes and understand those who are different or whose beliefs differ from yours.
  • Being a good critical thinker: Studies from the University of Chicago show that bilinguals are better able to pick up on nuances and subtleties. This leads to more informed decision making, rather than emotional decision making.
  • Making connections across complex ideas: Bilinguals possess many cognitive skills that heighten awareness of complexities in a given situation. Studies show bilinguals have more control over their attention, make more rational decisions, and are more perceptive and observant.

The benefits of foreign language learning aren’t limited to soft skills and cognitive function.

“Scantron” by Brian Cantoni on Flickr.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Of course, the benefits and advantages afforded by foreign language study are not limited to employable skills. Parents, educators, and employers have many reasons to emphasize languages with the same intensity as STEM:

  • Language learning supports academic achievement in myriad ways, including higher standardized test scores (especially in math and science!), increased ability to hypothesize, and improved reading abilities.
  • Studying a language may take time away from studying STEM subjects, but it doesn’t detract from performance in those areas. A 2007 study by the University of Massachusetts showed that “children who study a foreign language, even when this second language study takes time away from the study of mathematics, outperform students who do not study a foreign language and have more mathematical instruction during the school day.” The same study indicated this benefit applies to other subjects as well.
  • Learning a foreign language can improve your native language. As you ingest the grammar rules, syntax, and other complexities of a new language, your knowledge of the mechanics of language improve. This awareness can carry over to your first language, making you a better speaker and writer—skills whose utility cannot be denied.
  • Learning a language, even at lower proficiency levels, can stave off dementia by up to 4 years (almost 4 times as long as the leading medical treatment for the disease).

STEM is but one part of a well-rounded, preparatory education.

As a tech company, we do not deny the necessity of STEM skills in the modern workplace. In fact, we think STEM and languages are complementary skills. But offering scholarships or distributing state education funds based on which degrees earn money or guarantee employment only narrows our tunnel vision. CNN host Fareed Zakaria agrees, arguing:

“This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy.”

Particularly at younger ages—at least through high school—an introduction to the full spectrum of technical and social sciences develops the soft skills that can be harder to learn later on. Languages in particular are best started as early as possible to develop the skills and qualities so highly desired by Google.

What does this mean for employers?

Lest you think the title of this post is using Google’s name as nothing more than a buzzword, it’s not just the internet behemoth who feels this way.  According to NACE’s Job Outlook 2016 survey and the 260 employers it surveyed, important hirable attributes include “written communication skills, problem-solving skills, verbal communication skills, and a strong work ethic”. In fact, “respondents to the current survey gave slightly greater weight to verbal communication skills than was the case last year, and slightly less weight to analytical/quantitative skills.”

The increased value placed on STEM degrees, unfortunately, has resulted in a decrease in value for other majors. While they value attributes associated with the social sciences and humanities, survey respondents also indicated that academic major has the most significant influence on hiring decisions. Foreign language abilities and study abroad experiences, on the other hand, wield “not much influence”.

This inconsistency is massively important for educators, law makers, parents, and employers to realize. It’s time for employers to see the value of degrees in languages, philosophy, history, the arts, and beyond. Some have already noticed; billionaire investor Mark Cuban predicts “a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than […] for programming majors and maybe even engineering”.

Emphasizing foreign languages and other social sciences is still relevant – critical, even – in the 21st century. As the Washington Post points out, even Steve Jobs infamously insisted STEM wouldn’t be enough. The future will require experts in “the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.”

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About the Author:meaghan

Meaghan is the Social Media Coordinator for Transparent Language, aka the messenger of language news to twitterverse. She once had a love/hate relationship with French, but the two are now very happy together, although one time she was a little unfaithful with a semester of Hausa lessons. @meagmcgon


Comments:

  1. Desa Dawson:

    What a good article that clearly explains the term “well rounded” in a practical way showing how different coursework should be utilized to best prepare students for the world in which they will function as adults.

    • Transparent Language:

      @Desa Dawson Thanks, Desa! We’ve seen some pushback from readers who wonder why it has to be one or the other. Our hope with this post is not to pin STEM and MFL against one another, but to achieve parity. “Well-rounded” includes both (among many other subjects), and languages shouldn’t be the obvious cut when budgets get tighter or teachers are in short supply.

  2. Dru Sampson:

    There seems to be no information about Catalan. I am very interested in learning this language. In light of the current events and political climate in Catalonia and between the governments of Catalonia and Spain, it is entirely possible-even probable-that Catalan will be banned in the schools of Catalonia (just as it was under Franco) in an effort to bring this proud and productive people under Spanish rule. It is an effort to destroy their history and culture. Recognizing Catalan as its own language here would send a message to the world that it is a viable language worthy of promotion and may be its chance for survival if the Spanish government-more fascist than than its allies choose to recognize-has its way.

    • Sam:

      @Dru Sampson Sorry, I don’t buy it. Google certainly doesn’t pit language vs STEM. Only your clickbaity title and author frame this false dilemma. The study you reference lists a collection of traits that your author assumes are taught in language classes (but not STEM?). Where is language skills mentioned? Top 8? Oh, that’s right, they are never actually mentioned. Google says NOTHING about foreign language instruction in their report. And “dead last” for STEM — really? STEM skills are only last among the TOP EIGHT SKILLS needed at Google. That’s like saying the #2 skill is “dead last” among the top 2 skills, or that the Patriots are dead last among Super Bowl competitors. Bias much?. Perhaps there are some critical thinking skills yet to be gained for your author. Here’s the thing: we know we need leaders who are well rounded in a variety of fields. When sites like yours picks fake fights with other worthy topics of study we make no progress toward this goal.

  3. Cindy Leonard:

    I agree with Luna and Desa. What we’re pushing for in World Language is a Renaissance “Person” — the goal [replacing the word “Man” ] of Leonardi da Vinci.
    NB Most citizens of Nordic countries [Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland} surpass our own students in their understanding of English grammar and American culture.

  4. Najat:

    This is nice program from google Iam Arabic language teacher & i need more actives for teaching students. Thanks

  5. Robert Meillier:

    I used to work in the higher education sector and I remember “preaching in the desert” when trying to persuade my engineering colleagues that developing our students’ language skills would provide them with the well-rounded education they needed for their future careers…

  6. Camille Kusnier:

    Being a retired foreign language teacher who has always recognized the importance/value of studying a foreign language, and being saddened by the decline in language studies and offerings in schools, it is heartening to see that there is hope that there will be a resurgence of interest in language studies. Language teachers have always had to fight for foreign language to be kept in the curriculum and not cut because of lack of funds, lack of students because it was removed from the course requirements for graduation, and was always in competition with the perceived ‘more important’ subjects, and lack of stress on the reasoning behind why the study of a language is important, not just in the job market, but also in its value in the intellectual and cultural development and reasoning skills of an individual. Glad that Google is publicizing something all language teachers have always believed in and ‘fought’ for!!! Kudos and a big “Merci Infinement’ to Google!!!

  7. Jo:

    I would have loved to have seen a bibliography of your resources with (if available) links to the studies you quoted.

    • Transparent Language:

      @Jo Hi Jo! Throughout the text, we linked to all mentioned studies and resources that we used while writing this article. Let us know if there’s one that’s missing or one you’d like to know more about.

  8. Alexandra Pradella-Ott:

    I am retired native German teacher. I am the co founder of the Foreign Language Academies in Chicago, Il. That are Turner Drew Language Academy and LaSalle Language Academy, at these schools parents selected a Foreign Language for their child K-8 .Therefore the student studied the language every day for 9 years and became proficient. I took my 7/8 graders to Germany for a student exchange, they attended prep schools for three weeks and got to know the people of the language they studied. I wrote my own curriculum, which I changed every year according to the intelligence of my students. I taught for 34 years German and enjoyed my profession very much. The K/1st graders I taught through music, songs, circle games and finger plays. My students performed in International festivals, visited German neighborhoods, ate and ordered in German restaurants, visited the Goethe Institute, were often emerged in the German/Austrian/Swiss traditions etc. I received many awards for my work from AATG, Chg. Bd of Ed.,IFLA. Checkpoint Charlie Scholarship etc. —I miss teaching very much, because it was my dream job. I taught until I was 72 years old. I still have contact with many of my students through FACEBOOK, who continued with the study of German. Just last week I met for dinner with a former Chinese student, who I have not seen for 30 years, she introduced me to her family and gave me a little gift, a little crystal snowflake and sang the German children’s song “Schneefloeckchen, Weissroeckchen”, which she learned from me 39 years ago. It is a song about a snowflake. I had tears of joy in my eyes. That is the satisfaction for a teacher. I was a strict but loving teacher, that is the only way a student will learn. I expected them to learn and prepared them for life.

  9. Nathaniel Ziering:

    Shame on you. Language is beautiful, why distort it with grotesque false dichotomies?

    Not getting public funding, or loosing students, let’s blame STEM. Did you know that coding is another language? Fact check me.

    But coding is not one of the heritage languages or global you get paid to teach.

    Though it could be, ever think that far out? You could be a STEM liason. Creating annual digital textbooks in over 50 languages, getting govt. contracts. $$$ up in the wazoo.

    Lose the myopia from your dictionary first please. Best of luck.

    • Transparent Language:

      @Nathaniel Ziering We don’t aim to pin one against the other, STEM vs. MFL. We’d like to see greater parity, and well-rounded education and professional development for all fields. Language IS beautiful, but it’s also practical and beneficial, which is a more compelling argument to those who continuously try to put it on the chopping block.

      As mentioned in the post, we don’t discount the value of code – it’s what builds our products, after all. You could argue that our company earns as much from the coding languages as from the languages we teach. We’re focused on transforming the economics and logistics of how spoken languages are learned. We’re not in the business of teaching code, but we’re grateful to those who are.

  10. Cliff Hemple:

    “Languages in particular are best started as early as possible to develop the skills and qualities so highly desired by Google. You can train coders on-the-job, but teaching empathy? Not so much.”

    Conversely, you could claim coding is best started as early as possible to develop the skills and qualities, while languages can be acquired on-the-job. There is evidence for both.

    • Sam:

      @Cliff Hemple But your author takes aim at STEM in ways that Google does not, even remotely. You have created a false dichotomy, complete with a Buzzfeed-worthy clickbait title. Where does Google mention language? Nowhere. Where does Google compare STEM skills to language skills? Nowhere. All that is on you.

  11. Emily:

    First para into the article and I was sure this was a promotional article by a language centre or its equivalent and I was right!

    • Transparent Language:

      @Emily We’re not hiding it. We didn’t use this as an opportunity to promote our products (just our free newsletters!) because this post isn’t about us. It’s about the state of education in the U.S. and our belief in a well-rounded education that includes parity for STEM and MFL.

  12. Eric Clayberg (Google Employee):

    Whoa! Talk about a very misleading article about that Google research. Project Oxygen was all about what makes a “great manager”, not a great employee or a great engineer. While technical skills are important for an Engineering Manager, there were other team focused skills that were more important (and I do agree with that). Here is the actual Project Oxygen list in order:

    – Good Coach
    – Empowers/does not micromanage
    – Interest/concern in employees
    – Productive/results-oriented
    – Good Communicator
    – Career Development
    – Vision/Strategy
    – Technical Skills

    I found this blog post and the Washington Post article to be extremely misleading. Project Oxygen was very specifically about managers and not employees in general (I’ve lectured on Project Oxygen dozens of times so it’s near and dear to my heart). While those skills would be very nice to have in any employee, that was not the point of Project Oxygen at all. I suspect that STEM skills are close to being most important for any of the engineering staff who are primarily individual contributors (with the reverse being true for managers). Having the Washington Post article use an intentional misdirect like that undermines their entire conclusion (as nice as it may be).

    Here is a NYTimes article that covers Project Oxygen much more accurately:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/business/13hire.html

  13. Lenay Henkes:

    We live in the USA and because of that it is important that we learn other languages. Being from California and living so close to the border with Mexico, it was important for me to learn another language. I took French in school but had to be able to communicate with our Mexican population in So. California. I did pick up enough to communicate to those patients that came thru our doors that only spoke Spanish. I know the parents of sick babies that came in were worried about their child so I had to be able to comfort them however I could, so knowing that and being able to convey empathy was important to them.

    • Transparent Language:

      @Lenay Henkes Thanks for sharing, Lenay! Love the first sentence in particular – most people would cite living in the US as a reason NOT to learn a language. Your story is one of the many examples of careers where you might not think you need to learn a language, but it can come in to play and make a difference not only in your career but in the lives of people you treat.

  14. Eric Clayberg (Google Employee):

    Even if you discount the misleading substitution of the word “employee” for the word “manager”, I also think the whole conclusion is off base. While those 8 attributes are pretty obvious good traits to have in a manager (and even a general employee), it doesn’t follow that you are more likely to gain those skills from a liberal arts education vs. a STEM-focused education. Most of those skills are picked up from working in and ultimately leading teams of people. Some of those skills are very hard to teach, and you either have good people skills or you don’t. A good STEM education that involves a lot of team project work will do a fine job teaching the skills on that list that can be taught. Most (engineering) managers at Google (in particular) start out as individual contributors (ICs) where their Technical Skills are the most important attribute that they bring to the table (and the ones that Google predominantly hires for). As they move up the ranks and take on Technical Lead roles, those other skills become more and more important (especially if they want to become an actual people manager).

    • Transparent Language:

      @Eric Clayberg (Google Employee) Hi Eric. Thanks for the comments, truly, it’s really helpful to have an inside perspective. We did not intend to mislead by referencing this study in specific. Our hope with this post is to inform school administrators, teachers, parents, and others that foreign languages are still valuable and should not always be the obvious choice to cut when budgets get tight. Since the national imperative has been on increasing STEM education, we thought it interesting and timely that a study from the indisputable king of STEM (Google) showed that soft skills (often associated with language learning, according to research) are valued as highly as technical skills (at least for certain employees, as you right point out).

      Dr. Bill Rivers of the Joint National Committee for Languages wrote a piece for us a few years ago discussing the strong link between the two fields: “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.” We certainly don’t want to pin the two subjects against each other (provocative title aside), but rather show they are complementary.

      We don’t deny that individual engineers/employees benefit more from strong technical skills at the start of their careers (though a deeper study into other roles would be interesting!), but it sounds like we agree that everyone will need those skills to a great extent if/when they move into leadership/management skills. As the NY Times article (great share, thank you) points out toward the end, communication skills and people skills are paramount. Learning a foreign language is but one way to start building those skills early on, but certainly there are other ways like incorporating more group work like you suggest. We agree that working in and leading teams is important (much like immersion is touted as the most effective way to learn a language), but other valued skills like communicating well, putting yourself in others’ shoes, etc. are indeed improved by language study.

      Perhaps we’re on the same page more than we think. We’re advocates for a well-rounded education that includes both STEM classes and language classes (and hopefully one day a marriage of the two). This article was intended to promote language education, lest we fall into the trap that technical skills are the end-all-be-all for the next generation of leaders.

      • Transparent Language:

        @Transparent Language Also, we have re-worked a few key phrases in the post to better reflect that the Google study was specific to leaderships/management roles. Thank you again for the insight.

      • Eric Clayberg (Google Employee):

        @Transparent Language Thank you for updating the post, and, yes, I think we are pretty much on the same page with respect to a well rounded education.

        BTW, I loved my four years of Latin in High School, and they have certainly helped me in many, many ways throughout my STEM career! 🙂

        • Transparent Language:

          @Eric Clayberg (Google Employee) Well now THAT is excellent to hear. If you think battling on behalf of MFL is tough, you can’t imagine the fight against Latin nowadays. Dead language shmead language!

  15. Richardlanguage:

    In IT we call these “hard” skills (STEM, technical skills) and “soft” skills (interpersonal, executive function). You need both to do a good job, but the more you move up the management hierarchy, the more you need soft skills. But stuff doesn’t get done without hard skills.

    I agree, though, that learning foreign languages is a huge benefit for soft skills. I’ve seen that fact in my own IT career.

    • Transparent Language:

      @Richardlanguage Absolutely, thanks for making our argument so succinctly! It’s not that we wish to replace STEM with language study, but find a better balance between the two. Nothing gets done without the hard skills, absolutely. But schools, administrators, parents, and hiring teams need to consider that nothing (or very little) can get done well, done efficiently, done on time, etc. without the right soft skills and leadership.

  16. KQ:

    Coming to this party a little late but saw this reposted on a friends page.

    Great article and while I completely support foreign language education I think they have a very narrow view of what STEM actually is. Unfortunately there are still some places that see STEM as just an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math (content areas btw not skills) when in reality it is an approach to teaching and learning grounded very heavily in the 4C’s (communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity – these are skills). Good STEM Education these days is really a “project” based approach to solving real world problems by breaking down the silos of traditional content areas in the classroom and facilitating a students application of knowledge. This 100% should include foreign language and the arts. In a global economy the ability to communicate during the process is key but also, it doesn’t matter if you can solve the problem if you can’t communicate your solution!

  17. Teacher:

    While this is an excellent article, I do not see the connection between what Google is purporting to be important skills and the authors inference that Language abilities account for these skills. While you make persuasive suggestions, you do so without connecting any sort of research showing how language skills translate to critical thinking and the other skills mentioned. You make the connection anecdotally, but that seems to be your bias. Personally, I do not have any language skills, yet my leadership, critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills are off the charts. I did not learn those skills from studying or knowing other languages. I learned those skills by practicing those skills in a real-world environment where those skills were coveted. I agree with Google that these are the most important things to learn, even more important than content we teach in school today. However, it is putting students in opportunities to practice these modes of thinking that will help them develop those skills. Language learning may indeed help, but I don’t believe it is the be-all, end-all for learning those skills.

  18. Lauren:

    Meaghan – thanks for this perspective! Coming from a STEM-focused non-profit, I couldn’t agree more that STEM and language are complementary subjects that build complementary skill sets, which often surprises people. That’s a big reason why we now invest heavily in language AND STEM in an effort to help close the achievement gap.

    You might enjoy this: we had a little fun marrying the two yesterday on our blog about World Poetry Day: http://www.nms.org/News-and-Views/Blog/2018/March/Poetry-and-STEM.aspx.

    Thanks again for sharing this!


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