Not Lost in Translation: The Growing Importance of Foreign Language Skills in the U.S. Job Market

Publication date: 
March 2017
Not Lost in Translation: The Growing Importance of Foreign Language Skills in the U.S. Job Market

In today’s globalized world, businesses need employees who can serve customers not only in English, but in a wide range of other languages as well. In 2013 a record 305,000 U.S. companies reported exporting goods abroad. Similarly, customers here on U.S. soil are growing increasingly diverse. While just one in nine Americans spoke a language other than English at home in 1980, more than one in five did by 2014. Given this, it is not surprising that by 2020, proficiency in more than one language will be among the most important skills a job seeker can have. Research has already shown that foreign language skills can lead to enhanced job opportunities and higher wages for today’s workers.

Yet, despite this rapid increase in demand for foreign language skills, fewer students in the United States are taking language classes. A 2015 study by the Modern Language Association found that between 2009 and 2013, a period when the number of students attending U.S. universities grew substantially, enrollment in foreign language courses at the university level dropped by more than 111,000 spots—the first decline since 1995. This meant that only 7 percent of college students were enrolled in a foreign language class by 2013. And even those taking language classes weren’t likely to retain their skills for the long term. Indeed, less than 1 percent of American adults remain proficient in a language they learned in school.

Previous attempts to understand the increasing demand for foreign language skills have been limited in scope. Many existing studies focus on demand for bilingual workers in fields like translation, interpretation, and language instruction—jobs in which language skills are clearly necessary. Other research has focused exclusively on Spanish-English bilinguals, or has relied on small-scale survey data. Such work does not accurately reflect the rich diversity of today’s labor and consumer market.8 It also fails to provide meaningful insights into how immigrants or their children could help to fill the growing demand for foreign language employees.

This study aims to overcome the limitations of past research, providing valuable insight into how the demand for bilingual workers has grown at both the state and national levels. We also explore demand for workers who speak specific languages including Arabic, Korean, or French.