The divide that binds


Last week I noted a “language gap” between the U.S. and Asia, given that only about one out of 288 of American public school students was enrolled in an Asian language course. In percentage terms this is about three-tenths of 1 percent of the students, or 0.3%. In scientific terms this is called teeny-tiny.

Since this data was for the K-12 realm, it’s a look down the road to the work force of tomorrow, and to the management ranks two and three decades from now.

I took a look at the Asian language slice of the equation, but the overall picture is just as instructive, and I noted that only 18.5 percent of these students studied any foreign language at all. I’m not being critical about it: I don’t care what anyone else studies, it’s none of my business.

But the bigger point from an economics perspective is that the American public’s enthusiasm for doing hands-on international trade, trans-Pacific trade included, probably has some limits.

I’m going to speculate here and note that the post K-12 realm is not going to offer any magic changes in the equation. The K-12 realm is, after all, the input, and anything that comes after that is still a function of it. Well, that’s how my simple mind sees it: Life, to me, is just one big Input-Output matrix, plus cheeseburgers.

In other words, the factors that have made the K-12 figure so low are going to be rooted in the same factors that will put limits on post K-12 enrollment; the two realms are drawing from the same population, and therefore subject to the same broad factors. No quick “fix” is going to close the language gap. It’s baked in the cake.

Which leads us to the juicy part of things, the point where we can contemplate that where there’s a gap, there’s an opportunity. Right?

Well, maybe.

From what I’ve seen, unless it’s combined with other attributes, such as technical credentials or business skills, mere language itself doesn’t open many high-paying doors. Sure, a few high fliers can become translators or interpreters, or other talents might write successful books on language or do other impressive things, but that’s not on the menu for most of us.

People often discuss whether big corporations are going to reward, or not reward, foreign language skills when hiring or promoting. Recruiters are the experts in this realm, so they’re the ones to listen to. Don’t ask me, I couldn’t even fathom a guess.

Of course, Saipan has the tourism industry right under its nose, which offers both incentive and opportunity to get some language practice rolling.

Outside of Saipan, of the peers I’ve known who took up languages after they had been in management ranks, it was more a matter of trying to make life a little easier than a matter of advancing their careers in some direct, rat-pushes-lever-gets-rewarded-with-a-food-pellet sort of way.

Indeed, at some point, if your work drags you through enough foreign places you wind up wanting to communicate better. I think there’s a random element to this gig, where the language you decide to study is more often a matter of chance than of calculation. One fateful day, entirely by chance, some invisible window in the psyche opens up and says, “Let’s get a book on the local language; it can’t hurt just to take a look.”

No, it can’t hurt. But it sure can take a lot of time. For me, studying Mandarin Chinese grew into being quite the little hobby. I don’t have any clear notions of doing anything useful with it, but, instead, I just have a vague sense that I’m better off with it than without it. Also, I have been a total goof-off lately, so I enjoy studying while ignoring the pressing concerns of practical life. I’m not a scholar; I’m a beach bum.

Anyway, stepping back to the broader picture, yes, I see a language gap, but no, I don’t see any clear way to charge into it and reap an automatic windfall. Just because there’s a divide doesn’t mean building a bridge over it will be profitable.

So, on this note, I think most people will simply do what they want to do. They will follow their interests and their instincts. This strikes me as the most sensible approach of all.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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