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Why You Need a Foreign Language

Edward Trimnell on the Myth of Global English and the Costs of Americans' Monolingualism

Like many Americans, Edward Trimnell studied a foreign language in high school only because it was required. In his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio there had been no sizeable immigrant population since the 19th century, and he didn't see the point of conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary. He certainly never thought he'd use a foreign language in his future career.

It was not until the late '80s, when Trimnell was studying economics at the Univ. of Cincinnati that he wanted to learn a language. At the time, the pace of globalization was accelerating, and in particular U.S. and Japanese business relations were increasing. Trimnell's father, who worked in the automated data collection industry, was beginning to rely on Japanese suppliers on a regular basis.

Trimnell decided to enroll in a few Japanese classes at his university, and that was all he needed to become hooked. He embarked on an intensive self study course, and before his undergraduate years were over, Trimnell was fluent enough to start a translating business, tapping into Ohio’s major Japan-based companies like Honda and Toyota.

Now, with a career that has mixed academia, entrepreneurship, and the corporate mainstream—including more than a decade of business experience in the Japanese automotive industry and extended business travel to Japan, Brazil, and Mexico—Trimnell has put his real-world experience and knowledge of learning foreign languages into an accessible, engaging book. Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One (2003) offers compelling arguments for studying a foreign language, or two, as well as advice and resources for getting started. In addition to Why You Need a Foreign Language, Trimnell is also working on two books for students of the Japanese language.

Trimnell's day job is in a global IT project management position at Toyota. He earned a BA in economics from the University of Cincinnati in 1991 and has completed graduate work in marketing, management science, information systems, and finance.

You can order Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One from most bookstores, including www.Amazon.com. You can also go to www.edwardtrimnell.com. I spoke with Trimnell about his book and his thoughts on the state of language-learning in the U.S.

Sherry Schwarz

Transitions Abroad: There are many education-based books on learning foreign languages. Yours is unique in its focus on working professionals. Why target this audience?

Edward Trimnell: In the private sector, there is a persistent tendency to dismiss foreign language study as a purely cultural pursuit. When pressed on the subject, American managers will sometimes assert that foreign language competency “isn’t really a business skill,” but the situation on the ground proves otherwise. Correcting this misconception was part of the motivation behind Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One.

For example, I once met an American manager who was sent to Japan on a 5-year assignment. When I asked him if he learned Japanese, he replied that he didn’t have to, since he had an administrative staff that “served as his eyes and ears.” This manager was in charge of a marketing division of a large consumer products firm, but he couldn’t even read the local consumer press or comprehend the television commercials that his company produced for the local market.

Look at it this way: if your work involves the Mexican market and you don’t speak and read Spanish, then you are functionally illiterate within the Mexican market. There are ways of working around illiteracy, but most people would agree that literacy is a fundamental skill, and that it should be a priority for anyone working at a professional level in a particular country.

TA: Are there areas of the global job market where non-multilingual Americans are being left behind?

ET: A foreign language is one of the most practical skills you can acquire. It gives you the ability to move freely in a non-English-speaking environment without the aid of an intermediary. This has many implications. You will be able to do your own market research, talk to the employees who work on the assembly line in your company’s overseas manufacturing facility, call a company in a foreign city without having to worry if the phone will be answered by someone who speaks English.

In my book, I mention there are thousands of professional jobs listed on www.Monster.com that require skills in English and another language. These internationally oriented positions are now more or less the exclusive domain of the foreign-born educated elite. When a U.S. company needs a Chinese-speaking attorney or a Japanese-speaking engineer, they almost never hire an American for the job—because so few American attorneys or engineers bother to learn foreign languages. This doesn’t have to be the case.

TA: What course or combinations of study would you recommend for working professionals who want to learn a language quickly?

ET: The key is to make language study part of your daily routine. You don’t have to attend formal classes, although they are effective if you have the time and resources. There are many audio programs that can be purchased for less than $100. I especially recommend the “Teach Yourself” series at the beginner’s level. Self-study audio programs are also available at the intermediate and advanced levels for most languages. These materials enable you to study a language at the time and place most convenient for you.

It is also a good idea to expose yourself to unscripted bits of “real” language as soon as possible. I recommend developing a circle of acquaintances who speak the language you want to learn. This is of course easy to do if you are living overseas, but it is possible in most U.S. cities, as well. I have also benefited tremendously from Spanish-language cable television and from various foreign-language radio programs that are available over the Internet.

TA: You write about the global popularity of English as “a mixed blessing and a curse for those of us who claim it as our native tongue.” Why a curse?

ET: The fact that many people in the world know some English often leads to the incorrect assumption that everyone in the world can functionally speak English. There is a huge difference between knowing a bit of a language and being able to use it to communicate in a wide range of complex conversational situations.

Americans often return from abroad claiming that the people in Paris, Tokyo, or Milan “were pretending not to understand English.” The truth is that they probably understood some English, but not as much as the visitor would have liked.

Our historic weakness in foreign languages often creates commercial advantages for foreign businesses, as well. Literacy in a foreign language is a tool that enables a person to research markets, sell products, and develop relationships. Competitors of U.S. firms abroad would be more than happy to see low rates of foreign language literacy continue among American businesspersons.

TA: In your book, you encourage readers to “Demonstrate their willingness to meet the other side halfway.” I suspect this advice comes from your own experience?

ET: Yes. One example I like to tell is about a time I once walked into a tense meeting situation in Japan, and someone began talking about me as if I wasn’t there, on the assumption that I didn’t understand Japanese. He launched into a bit of a tirade about the unreasonable requests of the American division of the company, which I represented. So I made kind of a joke of it. I said in Japanese, “Tell me when those unreasonable people arrive—I don’t want to be in the same meeting with them.” Fortunately, he took the joke, and my remark served as an ice-breaker for the subsequent negotiations.

I spent a lot of time working with Japanese transplant automotive plants located in Mexico. In these environments, a person who speaks fluent English is really the exception. Since I can speak both Japanese and Spanish, I was able to talk to everyone in every facility I visited—at senior management levels as well as on the plant floor.

TA: Since 9/11, much has surfaced about the shortage of U.S.-born Pashto, Farsi, and Arabic speakers, especially in translating the Al Qaeda intelligence that was apparently available to the FBI and CIA. Shouldn't knowing foreign languages play a more important role in our national security strategy? Any thoughts on reversing the trend toward monolingualism in America?

ET: There is an obvious crisis when so few Americans can read what is written on a jihadi web site or the Arabic-language site of Al-Jazeera. We rely too heavily on foreign nationals for our translation needs in the Middle East. I’m not saying that every American should speak Arabic, but an imbalance exists when almost no Americans can speak Arabic. The Middle East is an area of long-term strategic importance to us, and the current struggle against Al Qaeda is only one part of it. We also now have a long-term commitment in Iraq. Our chances of success will be greater if American soldiers, diplomats—and eventually businesspersons—can understand what average Iraqis are saying.

There are many steps involved in turning this situation around, but the first step is a critical change in attitude. Last week was National Foreign Language Week (March 1-7, sponsored by Alpha Mu Gamma National Collegiate Foreign Language Honor Society). A school district in Maryland observed the occasion by broadcasting the Pledge of Allegiance in a number of foreign languages. One teen protested on the grounds that this was somehow unpatriotic, and his father publicly supported his actions. Unfortunately, there are some elements in this country that equate foreign language study with being “un-American.”

When you learn a foreign language, you are better able to represent American viewpoints abroad. And you help to erase the language gap between us and our competitors overseas—who have long since realized that learning English helps them to compete against American institutions in political and commercial arenas.

TA: What do you make of our reliance on the overseas English-language press?

ET: The overseas English-language press is edited and sanitized for foreign consumption. Although government censorship can be a factor, it is usually a case of editorial boards in other countries deciding what “spin” should be put on the news for the English-speaking audience. This means that we miss out on news reports and editorial viewpoints that locals read but that are never translated into English.

TA: Languages, especially those of indigenous populations, are becoming endangered worldwide. What are the implications of this and even more specifically of America’s lacking concept of linguistic diversity?

ET: Unfortunately, I don’t think there are any easy answers regarding the issue of endangered languages. The process of linguistic consolidation is natural and—perhaps—inevitable. It has been going on for thousands of years. In the ancient world, regionally dominant languages like Latin, Aramaic, Akkadian, and Greek pushed nearby minority tongues into obscurity. As recently as the Middle Ages, multiple languages were also spoken in Great Britain and France. The linguistic situation changed as feudalism ended and central governments asserted their power. As national languages became dominant, minority European languages like Cornish, Provençal, and Irish Gaelic either became regional patois, or disappeared entirely.

Personally, I have never met a language that I didn’t like, and I regret seeing any disappear. Some of the Native American languages are especially interesting from a linguist’s perspective. But I am not sure if Ojibwe or Lakota can be saved from eventual extinction, unless some group of people begins using them for practical purposes.

Hebrew, however, serves as a case study of a language that was literally brought back from the dead. As a colloquial language, Hebrew had already fallen into general disuse by New Testament times, and it remained a more or less “dead language” until it was revived in the 19th century. It is today the national language of Israel.

The debate over linguistic diversity in the U.S. interests me, and I have followed the activities of groups like “Official English” in the news. In practical terms, American English is probably always going to be the language of opportunity in the U.S., and immigrants recognize this. Spanish currently has a large presence in our country, but this is a temporary phenomenon due to large numbers of first-generation immigrants from Latin America. I know many second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans, and few of them even speak fluent Spanish. The linguistic melting pot is inexorable within U.S. borders.

However, Spanish is the language of opportunity in Mexico. Chinese is the language of opportunity in China. This is the real linguistic diversity that I think we need to wake up to. We are increasingly dependent on (and vulnerable to) institutions in foreign countries; and more of us need to speak their languages in order to take advantage of opportunities abroad.

TA: What are some of your favorite books on learning languages?

ET: Kenneth Katzner’s The Languages of the World gives the reader a brief introduction to practically every language in existence. John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel is also requisite reading for anyone with a serious interest in languages.

TA: Are you planning to pick up another language?

ET: I am currently studying Arabic. I purchased several audio programs, and I am making some progress. It is a very difficult one: learning to read the alphabet is not so difficult, but Arabic grammar is an extreme challenge for a native English-speaker.

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