English-Only: New Handicap in World Trade

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Like American tourists, American goods do go abroad. In 1986, export sales earned us more than $217 billion. One-third of that came from our top eight exports: airplanes, spacecraft, automobile parts, computers and computer parts, passenger cars, electronic components, general merchandise and measuring instruments.

As for many other products, we have stopped making better mousetraps, and both our citizens and our neighbors have stopped beating a path to our door.

Even when we are better able to compete, as we are now when the dollar is so low, we still lose export sales because of our monolingualism and our ignorance of other cultures. Though English is now the universal lingua franca, the fact is that billions of people cannot speak it. So we are going to have to learn their languages because our foreign competitors, besides knowing how to make better mousetraps, know something that those who produce American products--and American MBAs--do not. They know that while you can buy in any language you can sell only in the language of the customer’s choice.


Twenty years ago a major American firm sent one of its employees to London as its European representative. This man still recalls with embarrassment what happened at his first conference. The agenda began with: “The Language of Today’s Meeting: Dutch, English, French or German?” Except for my friend, who was the only American present, the other participants could discuss the meeting’s business, including the jokes and the jargon, in any of the four languages. But because of him, they had to do it only in English.

On a 1984 trip to West Germany I met a businessman who imports many items. Often, he said, the U.S. item is competitive with its foreign equivalents. Nevertheless, he usually buys from non-American firms. Why? “I am fluent in English, and I do like to speak it,” he said. “But whenever the purely commercial considerations of price, quality, delivery date and service are not at issue, I cannot ignore that your salesmen speak only English while theirs negotiate in excellent German.”

In 1986 I visited Australia. That I saw hundreds of Japanese tourists didn’t surprise me. That I met many white Australians who are studying Japan’s language and culture did. One young woman can, thanks to three years of study in Tokyo, speak, read and write Japanese fluently. She is at the bottom of middle management in a hotel chain whose executives are determined to capture a larger share of the Japanese market. As she put it, “What better way is there for me to gain the attention of the bosses and rise up in the corporation?”

Our U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration tries, with an annual budget of about $200 million, to encourage tourists to come here. In 1984 foreign visitors spent $13.8 billion. That’s exactly equal to our $13.8-billion foreign trade deficit for February, 1988. If we could have doubled the 1984 figure--tourism is after all an “invisible” export--we could have eliminated the February, 1988, deficit altogether.

Can we increase tourism substantially? Yes--but not before we do two things. We have to jettison the notion that earning lots of hard currency from catering to foreign tourists is more suited to a Third World banana republic than it is to a great industrial power. And we have to make our people aware that our linguistic chauvinism is more than an educational eccentricity. It is now an economic liability that we can no longer afford and that we can reduce only by a total immersion of Americans into foreign languages.

Everywhere there are foreigners in whom America evokes images of adventure and excitement. Only in America can they see the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, Pacific Coast Highway, Hollywood, Las Vegas, the Golden Gate Bridge, Broadway, the Empire State Building, Bourbon Street, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the White House. And if they want to see these places they have to visit the United States.


Many of them won’t, however. Not because they lack the money or the time, but because they speak little or no English. It’s a problem even if they come in tour groups. What if their guides get sick, or they oversleep and miss their group’s day trip, or they simply want to sample America’s sights and sounds alone? Where, even in our largest cities, will they find the police, doctors, shopkeepers, postal clerks, waiters, hotel staff members, cabbies, bus drivers, bank tellers and just plain passers-by who can speak even non-exotic languages like Portuguese, German, Italian and French?

The answer to their problems and ours is obvious. Whether here or abroad, whether to increase visible or invisible exports, more Americans must become competent in foreign tongues. Whenever necessary, we must be able to say--in French, for instance-- “Cher visiteur, cher importateur, nous sommes a votre service.”

We have nothing to lose but a good part of our trade deficit.