Once a week, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky practices rolling her R’s around phrases such as “Gracias por su ayuda”—or “Thank you for your support.” For the last six years, the Democratic representative from Illinois has been studying Spanish with the Graduate School, an adult-education program affiliated with the US Department of Agriculture.
“It’s really a plus to make the effort to speak to my constituents in Spanish or at least let them know I’m learning,” says Schakowsky, who has given short speeches and offered a response to President Bush’s radio address in Spanish. “I think it’s a sign of respect. I feel closer to them, and they feel closer to me.”
In an increasingly global culture, more Americans believe they just can’t afford to hold their tongue when it comes to a second language.
Enrollment in language classes at the Graduate School (888-744-4723; grad.usda.gov) has increased by 26 percent since 2000–01. It offers classes in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Spanish over four quarters.
During the fall quarter, which has the heaviest enrollment, the Graduate School teaches more than 75 language classes. It also offers on-site employer-sponsored training—similar to the class Schakowsky takes on the Hill—to law firms, government agencies, and corporations that recognize the value in having their employees understand a second language.
Most local colleges and public-school adult-education programs offer language classes. Many cultural organizations offer language seminars: In DC, the Goethe-Institut (202-289-1200; goethe.de/washington) offers German classes; the National Italian American Foundation (202-387-0600; niaf.org) offers Italian. And such well-known programs as Rosetta Stone (800-767-3882; rosettastone.com) and Berlitz (berlitz.com; locations in DC, North Bethesda, and Vienna) allow learners to study at home by computer or CD. Radio Lingua (radiolingua.com) is one company that offers podcasts.
“We’ve forced a lot of other countries to speak English because of our dominance,” says Schakowsky. “The United States of America has been so far behind in learning other languages. I think in the 21st century it puts us at an enormous disadvantage in terms of business, national security, and every other way you can think of. Being able to speak in someone else’s tongue really establishes a different level of a relationship.”
Relationships change, though—and that’s reflected in the languages that are in demand. In the last year, the Graduate School has seen a 50-percent increase in requests for employee-sponsored training in Arabic and Chinese.
“We’ve offered Arabic and Chinese for about ten years, but we’ve never had the enrollments that we’re seeing now,” says Ann Hufstader, program manager for foreign languages. “We also have had a marked increased interest in Farsi.
“In general, the employers who are interested in training their employees in Arabic or Farsi are defense-related, including contractors. For Chinese, it tends to be private-sector businesses and law firms. There has been a big increase in lawyers who need to review contracts and other documents in the Asian languages.”
The US Institute of Peace encourages work-related education and training. For many at the organization, that includes learning another language.
“There is a substantial number of people who have chosen to study Arabic,” says Mike Lekson, an executive with the nonprofit. Some are starting from scratch, while others have some command of the language. “Our job is education and training in an international environment. Because a lot of our focus is on the Middle East, the more Arabic you know, the better able you are to do business over there.”
While interest in Arabic and Chinese has grown, enrollment in Spanish classes has held steady. Employers who are interested in Spanish tend to work in local government and the service industries.
Marco Scherer, general manager at DC’s Hotel Madera, took a refresher Spanish class through the young-professionals site Thingstododc.com. “It was a way to set an example,” he says. The weekly class “helped quite a bit because a quarter of our staff is Spanish speakers from El Salvador.” The hotel, part of the Kimpton chain, employs 30 people who collectively speak 13 languages besides English—among them Arabic, Dutch, French, Japanese, Swahili, and Vietnamese.
Kimpton offers full-time employees up to $1,000 a year for education, and Hotel Madera has encouraged housekeepers to take English-language classes at local community colleges. “Promotion is definitely easier if you have a second language,” says Scherer. “Communication makes your team perform better, and that makes you shine.”
Marriott and other companies also offer tuition reimbursement for language classes, including English for nonnative speakers. Two hotels, Marriott at Metro Center and the JW Marriott, are using Sed de Saber, a new tool similar to the LeapFrog computer books; employees can take home a device to study English. Three employees have used it so far, and a test measures their proficiency. The program, which is optional, has met with such success that officials will offer it to managers to teach them Spanish.
The restaurant chain Chipotle also encourages staff to learn English if they haven’t already. Staff members love it, says Brenda Petrilli, a Chipotle language consultant who has worked with employees in groups and individually: “We’re giving them the opportunity to speak up. They don’t feel that because they don’t speak English we’re not listening to them.
“It’s gotten a great response. We can hire from within. We keep employees happy, so they stay longer.”
Whether understanding a second language helps in your current position, builds your résumé for future jobs, or is simply for personal interest and fun, most experts believe knowing one has far-reaching impact.
“It broadens the mental landscape in which you can assess things,” says Mike Lekson of the US Institute for Peace. “In general, I think it would be great if everyone in America spoke a second language. It’s good in terms of dealing with the world. It’s good in developing a broader understanding of how the rest of the world is working.”
For Congresswoman Schakowsky, the experience has led to praise from constituents in northwest Chicago. With almost 12 percent of her district Hispanic, she hopes to become fluent enough to do an interview for a Spanish-speaking network such as Telemundo.
“Knowing another language carries over every aspect of our relationships with other countries,” says Schakowsky. “Right now this is where the United States is behind, and it’s a disadvantage in terms of commerce and trade.
“I think that we need to have a national educational initiative to promote the teaching of certain languages.” She cites Chinese, Hindu, Urdu, and Arabic as examples. “We need to have teacher training and recruitment. We are a very diverse country.”
Or as a Spanish teacher might encourage Schakowsky to put it, “Somos un país muy diverso.”
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