It’s as good a time as any for American workers to take stock of their skills and find new ways to be competitive and marketable.
Human resource managers tell me that in a tough economy, everyone should try to reinvent themselves by leaving their comfort zones, expanding their portfolio and acquiring new abilities.
This is true, they say, whether you’re looking for employment and want to be in demand, or already have a job and want to be indispensable to your employer.
This advice is common sense. Nothing controversial here until you add these few simple words: “And one additional skill we should all have is the ability to speak a foreign language.” Or, let alone, these: “Like, say, Spanish.”
Then the idea becomes toxic. Many Americans push back. A piece of professional advice meant to help workers survive a tough market becomes an entree into the culture wars.
Mix in a dose of nationalism and some will bristle at the inference that there is something wrong with speaking only one language: English. Add a dash of pride and you’ll hear grumbling that Americans shouldn’t have to learn a foreign language to get a job in their own country.
From there, it’s a short walk to immigrant bashing and the assumption that new arrivals from Latin America are defiantly refusing to learn English. As if they had a choice in the matter. In reality, these immigrants are going to learn some English. It’s unavoidable. And, in fact, the longer they stay in the United States, the more likely they are to lose their Spanish.
Try telling that to the reader from Central California who took exception to my claim that illegal immigrants do jobs that Americans won’t do. It’s not that simple, she wrote.
The way she sees it, some of those Americans are being discriminated against in the workforce if they don’t speak a foreign language. In her hometown, she claimed, “people cannot find hardly any jobs that don’t require Spanish speaking.” It is little wonder, she said, that “most hired help is Hispanic.”
Claiming that she descended from Dust Bowl migrants who worked in the fields and then worked their way into better opportunities, she was offended by the idea that “we need to be able to speak Spanish to get any job.”
I wonder: Would there be this level of resentment if we were talking about workers taking the time to learn German, French, Italian or some other language?
Not likely. This pushback comes from the view of some Americans that Spanish is an inferior language because those who usually speak it are an inferior people.
At least columnist Dame Edna was honest about it. In 2003, the popular writer for Vanity Fair got in hot water with Latinos for telling a reader who was thinking about learning Spanish not to bother. After all, she said, the only people who speak the language are folks like “the help” and “your leaf blower.” The magazine later apologized.
This kind of bigoted and sophomoric humor doesn’t resonate with corporate America, which puts a high premium on executives being able to communicate in languages other than English.
In 2008, a survey by the talent management firm Korn/Ferry found that 64 percent of business executives speak two or more languages. That skill can be useful when businesses expand overseas or across borders. The languages most in demand include Chinese, Arabic — and Spanish.
But even if you never leave the United States, you still can’t escape the usefulness of speaking different languages. At the same time that the world is getting smaller due to globalization, the Latino population in the United States is getting larger.
With Latinos expected to make up as much as 30 percent of the population by 2050, some parents are getting the message that it might be a smart idea for their children to learn a few words of Spanish. It could come in handy. The good news is that this won’t be such a big stretch for a generation raised on bilingual television programs such as “Dora The Explorer.”
As any elementary school teacher will tell you, children are like little sponges. Their brains learn new things with ease. Part of the reason is that, for them, the learning process isn’t clouded by prejudice, arrogance, nationalism and pride. Sadly, that comes later.