When traveling abroad and asked “Where are you from?,” Utahns frequently get a confused look and the curious question, “Where’s Utah?” When this happens to you feel free to borrow the line, “Do you know where Las Vegas is? We’re right by Las Vegas.” I’ve yet to meet anyone, anywhere, who doesn’t claim to know where Las Vegas is. I also recommend hastening to add, “Utah is very different from Las Vegas.”
Besides the obvious differences, one distinction is Utah’s many multilingual speakers. In fact, over 100 languages are spoken in daily commerce. It is likely that many reading this column speak a second or even a third language. Personally, I speak the internationally renowned language of Flemish. While I may not find a plethora of opportunities to show off my bilingual skills, it did come in handy a few weeks ago when welcoming the ambassador from Belgium to the United States, and his wife was certainly surprised (and possibly even impressed) to hear a few sentences in the West-Vlaams dialect of her hometown.
The linguistic skills of other Utahns is likely more useful, particularly for the state’s many Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Mandarin speakers. And the high number of foreign languages isn’t just a result of many Utahns spending time overseas. Utah boasts a robust and expanding K-12 dual-immersion program. Every day, children in over 130 schools across the state spend part of the day learning math, reading, science, etc., in English, and part of the day learning those subjects in a foreign language.
The benefit of this language training to Utah’s position as the nation’s fastest growing economy cannot be overstated. Utah is part of the global economy, and the language ability of our workforce gives Utah a tremendous competitive advantage. Beyond the basic linguistics, understanding the world’s cultures helps Utah to be an outward focused, internationally minded state. And the results are obvious. With 8 percent export growth, to the tune of $13.3 billion in 2015, and a trade surplus of $4 billion, Utah’s international business community is thriving.
But like anything else in life, the competition is getting tougher, and many other states across the country are initiating and expanding their own dual immersion programs. To whit, President Obama recently announced, in partnership with China President Xi Jinping, a goal for the U.S. to have 1 million K-12 students studying Mandarin by 2020. This “1 Million Strong” challenge is an extension from an earlier goal for the U.S. to send 100,000 students to study in China.
Implementation of both initiatives is being led by the 100,000 Strong Foundation, a nonprofit organization established in 2013 to strengthen U.S-China relations. This worthy effort is being executed with bipartisan support at the national, state and local levels. The president, members of Congress, governors, mayors and educators, along with business leaders in both the U.S. and China, see the value and are joining the effort to increase the country’s linguistic skills and cultural understanding. And with an estimated 300 million students in China learning English, the effort and increased awareness is a two-way street.
The benefits of this effort go well beyond having more U.S. students speaking Chinese. They even go beyond the advantage to growing business ties. When the first and second largest economies in the world come together through language, a common bond can develop upon which to build cultural and personal understanding on an individual level. This common understanding will facilitate a stable and collaborative relationship that will benefit the people of two countries that have taken their places as the world powers of the 21st century.
Derek B. Miller is the president and CEO of the World Trade Center Utah. Previously he was chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert and managing director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.