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Language Skills in Urgent Demand Among U.S. Employers

By Erin Whelchel | Published: July 9, 2019

The cover of the report

New research by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) shows an urgent and rising demand for language skills in the U.S. workplace. ACTFL encourages the business community to serve as an ally in continuing efforts to advocate for language education.  

ACTFL and its Lead with Languages public awareness campaign, with the support of Pearson LLC and Language Testing International, commissioned Ipsos Public Affairs to conduct a survey of 1,200 U.S. employers. The resulting 2019 report, Making Languages Our Business: Addressing Foreign Language Demand Among U.S. Employers, indicates that 90 percent of U.S. employers surveyed rely on employees with language skills—32 percent of whom state a strong reliance.

Additional top-line findings include:

  • 56% of U.S. employers say their foreign language demand will increase in the next 5 years.
  • 47% state a need for language skills exclusively for the domestic market.
  • 1 in 3 language-dependent U.S. employers report a language skills gap.
  • 1 in 4 U.S. employers lost business due to a lack of language skills. 
Photo Credit: ACTFL

This demand for language skills is not limited to a single language, market, sector or functional department. Spanish leads as the most in-demand language among U.S. employers (85 percent), with other highly sought-after languages including Chinese (34 percent), French (22 percent), Japanese (17 percent), and German (17 percent). Ninety-seven percent of employers use language skills at least to some extent domestically, leaving only 3 percent using such skills for international needs only. And while customer service and sales come forth as the two departments most requiring language skills, a full 12 percent of employers cite a need for multilingual employees across all departments—from production to finance, and everything in between.

Combined with the critical cognitive and social skills inherent in the task of language learning, this new data places those who know one or more languages in addition to English at an even greater competitive advantage over their monolingual peers. 

Along with the survey findings, Making Languages Our Business also presents seven actionable recommendations that employers can take to build a company-wide language strategy.

Businesses are encouraged to take stock of their current language assets by conducting a formal Language Needs Analysis, professionally assessing employees’ current skills, and maintaining an inventory of linguistic and cultural competencies of their workforce to identify strengths as well as areas for improvement. Making languages a strategic focus during recruitment efforts and investing in targeted training for candidates and employees who need additional skills can also support employers’ broader goals and boost outcomes.

In addition to presenting ways to amplify a company’s own language assets, these recommendations also point to the ways in which businesses can contribute to the development of a strong future U.S. workforce by cultivating a pipeline of multilingual talent. Suggested actions include forming partnerships with colleges and universities that offer intercultural and language immersion opportunities and advocating for policies in support of funding for early language-learning programs.

Given the implications for education policy presented in this report, advocacy for language education cannot and should not be an undertaking isolated to parents, school districts, and language educators alone. With the current and future demand for language skills making a significant impact on our U.S. economy, the business community has an important role to play in implementing change—starting with practical and locally driven strategies that can later unfold into broader efforts across regions and industries.

If we want our country to have strong national security, world-class diplomatic and trade relations, and a robust economy, we need to stand in unison—students, their families, teachers and educational leaders, advising professionals, the business community, and government officials, all together—to support the local, state, and national policies and systems that will create and sustain effective language programs at all levels. 

About the Author

Erin Whelchel holds a sign reading

Erin Whelchel is the Outreach Manager at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and as such heads ACTFL’s Lead with Languages public awareness campaign. A passionate Francophile, she is an alumna of Smith College and the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF). Follow updates, student and professional testimonials, and advocacy efforts from Lead with Languages across social media channels @LeadWLanguages. 

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