A Science Leveraging an Art: Putting Languages to Work Posted by on Apr 23, 2018 in Archived Posts

There’s a compelling post on the Collaborative Fund blog called An Art Leveraging a Science, which discusses how seemingly disparate skills complement one another in professional scenarios. Language skills surely fit into that formula for many fields, though perhaps it’s more a case of science leveraging art.

An Art Leveraging a Science focuses on the example of strong writing skills for financial advisers. The benefits are many: first, advisers can build trust by successfully (yet simply) explaining their plans for investors’ money. Nobody wants to hand over their savings to someone they can’t understand. Second, advisers must be able to convince their clients to stick around for the long-run payoff in the face of scary short-term losses.

Yet, as the author points out, writing skills aren’t prioritized in a highly analytical curriculum like finance: “No finance textbook has a chapter on how to write a shareholder letter, despite it being infinitely more tangible to the success of a professional investor than most finance concepts.”

language at work

Education and professional development curricula narrow our focus, sometimes to the detriment of a well-rounded skillset.

Degree programs and professional development opportunities focus on skills presumed to be most relevant to their industry. But there are other core skills—writing, public speaking, cultural intelligence, language skills—that underpin success in many fields: marketing, sales, academia, scientific research, diplomacy and politics, and so on.

Even a recent Google employee study found that among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top leaders and managers, STEM expertise comes in last. Instead of coding experience or engineering knowledge, soft skills came out on top, such as communicating and listening well, having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues, and being a good critical thinker and problem solver.

When preparing for a career, we cannot overlook a well-rounded skill set:

“It’s tempting to think of great physicists as great just because they’re great at physics. Or great investors as great just because they’re great at investing. But there’s usually some unrelated skill that helps drive the success. An art that leverages a science.”

The sciences—and other fields—leverage language to reach new audiences and markets.

Take, for example, the Irish woman who sells whiskey in China. Dublin-native Roisin Oates has background in commerce, majoring in marketing, which certainly comes in handy as an international brand ambassador for Jameson whiskey who develops promotion strategies and plans events. But those hard skills would be for naught without her linguistic and cultural skills:

“Doing business here can also be difficult to adjust to at first. Chinese philosophy, “Confucianism”, can play major roles in doing business in China. There is a concept called guanxi, which is the relationships between people. From experience, I have found that people often say yes to things to be polite, even if they don’t want to commit there and then, and this can lead to misinterpretation.”

Recent graduate Nate Miller leveraged his language skills to land a job at social media giant Facebook—but he’s no translator. Miller is a data scientist who will combine his Spanish and Portuguese skills with his math and statistics knowledge to analyze data from Facebook’s Latin American mobile phone partners. He credits his “rare combination” of skills—and a bit of luck—with getting him the job.

The demand for diverse skill sets that integrate languages is not so rare anymore.

Foreign languages are in high demand among employers.

A 2014 study by the Coalition for International Education found that almost 30% of U.S. business executives surveyed reported “missed opportunities abroad due to a lack of on-staff language skills” and 40% reported that language barriers prevented them from reaching their “international potential”.

Other studies support the idea that multilingualism is good for the economy. According to the World Economic Forum, “countries that actively nurture different languages reap a range of rewards, from more successful exports to a more innovative workforce.”

german application

It makes sense, then, that language skills are increasingly demanded by employers from a range of fields. According to a 2017 report by New American Economy, the demand for multilingual employees in the U.S. has more than doubled in the preceding five years: “While U.S. employers posted roughly 240,000 job advertisements aimed at bilingual workers in 2010, that figure had more than doubled by 2015, growing to approximately 630,000.” These job listings came from a range of companies, including Bank of America and health insurance giant Humana, and encompassed a wide spectrum of positions including registered nurses, tax preparers, industrial engineers, and financial managers.

The U.S. education system does not adequately prepare students for the multilingual economy—yet.

A report commissioned by Congress in 2014 recommended a national strategy “to value language education as a persistent national need similar to education in math or English, and to ensure that a useful level of proficiency is within every student’s reach.” Key recommendations included starting instruction as young as possible, recruiting more talented language teachers, encouraging study abroad opportunities, and supporting heritage languages already spoken in the U.S.

Those goals are still a long way off. As of the 2014-2015 school year, however, only 19.66% of K-12 students were enrolled in foreign language classes. In 2017, the third year in a row, more than 40 states reported a shortage of world language teachers—an all-time high in the 25 years that the Department of Education has collected such data.

In the meantime, professional language training programs can meet the demand and create their own talent.

With the increasing demand and the relatively stagnant, insufficient supply of truly multilingual graduates, how do organizations meet their language needs?

Inside Higher Ed suggests that employers will have to focus on in-house or online training to close the skills gap. The benefits of employee training extend beyond in-house language expertise. Organizations who invest in employees experience higher retention rates and improved recruiting efforts. Employees receiving training feel valued, which can lead to more engagement and productivity.

Ryan Carson, the CEO of Treehouse, an online training platform for coding, design, and other tech skills, explains the dual benefits well: “The only way I can retain talent is to create it.” Larger organizations, from multinational companies like Nissan Motors to government agencies like the U.S. Military, are already doing exactly that, recruiting candidates with other specialized skills and training and sustaining their language capabilities as needed.

That doesn’t mean language training is out of reach for smaller companies or organizations with fewer resources. Thanks to technology, professional development programs can be outsourced, but still done in-place. Online, blended language training programs leverage technology and virtual human instruction to make language training less disruptive and more productive than ever.

government language training

“Georgia AG team sharpens language skills, prepares for Afghanistan” by Georgia National Guard is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Languages are akin to art—they can be beautiful, poetic, romantic, and musical. But we can’t risk their beauty overshadowing their utility: speaking a second language is not just a cultural pursuit or a nice-to-have. Languages are an important economic skill, a must-have for a range of fields from data science to engineering to public relations.

Until the majority of degree programs produce graduates capable of a useful proficiency level, companies and organizations in these fields would be wise to “leverage the art”, investing in language training for their employees.

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