The Economic and Social Impact of Language

With the rise of China, India and other Asian countries, what languages do we teach in school? Bengali? Punjabi? Nope. Think this is a bit of an issue for our economic and political future? Ayup! So does Amelia Friedman.  That's why, she founded and runs the Student Language Exchange. As she starts her senior year at Brown, her sense of urgency is should ours! This has profound implications for our innovation and economic success and national security. You can read more here about the impact of not changing our education and economic systems.


Six months ago, I decided that I wanted to learn Bengali. It’s not offered at my school, nor is it offered at any other college or university in Rhode Island. There’s no Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur or Livemocha or BBC Languages or Babel or LingQ. I’ve resorted to Skyping with a tutor in Dhaka.

Maybe you’re not shocked. Nobody learns Bengali.

In 2009, 97 American undergraduates studied Bengali, the 7th most spoken language in the world. Translation? Less than 100 American students were studying a language spoken by 193 million people in the world. Consequently, we aren’t being prepared for engagement in a country with a $2,100 per capita GDP. Some major news stories about Bangladesh have reached my Twitter feed in the past few months: A factory collapsed and over a thousand lives are lost. Hundreds of thousands are suffering due to groundwater contaminated by nuclear waste. Hundreds died in a killing spree committed by police and other government officials. We can report on these tragedies in our news outlets with some interpreted interviews, and perhaps send basic aid, but we face a stiff language barrier when we communicate with those that are most affected. And, without open and honest conversations, is it appropriate for us to try to help?

Bengali, Javanese, Lahnda (Punjabi), Telugu, Vietnamese, Marathi, Tamil. A year ago, I hadn’t even heard of some of these languages. Now I know that they’re among the 20 most spoken worldwide, and they’re not offered at most American universities. And, in 2010, Arne Duncan announced that 95% of American college students in language classes were taking European languages.

This is paralyzing. It doesn’t promote growth in our global economy, it’s not supporting global politics and communication, and it’s a major concern for our nation’s security interests. We are also not preparing to engage with some of the world’s poorest populations.

But what does that mean for our future?

95%. That does not reflect the skills the next generation will need as we face the political, social, economic and environmental battles of our shared future 

What do you care about?


World peace?


Gender equality?

Access to water?

Education and literacy?

Our generation faces a society that has adopted English as a global language, but we cannot forget that learning other languages initiates deeper connections and more trustful relationships between diverse communities. Language is more than a pragmatic communication system. Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Through shared language, students can become sensitive global activists and pursue productive community partnerships.

You may ask yourself: Why should I learn one of these underrepresented languages? Why should my child be studying Vietnamese instead of French? Guaraní instead of Spanish? What is the value of learning Punjabi or Bengali when the educated elite already speak English?

For a moment, discard the notion that everyone speaks English. Ask yourself: Who is “everyone” in that scenario? In many of these communities, the people who would most benefit from an outreached hand aren’t the people who learned fluent English in school.

For one final comparison, compare our map to a map of the Human Development Index:

Languages Taught:

 Human Development:

In these maps, we see that most American students study languages that are associated with high human development indices.

How are we going to contribute to solutions without communicating with those who are most affected? How will we even be able to identify the struggles that plague these communities? Will we be able to understand how to find sources of problems and support communities as they seek change? Can we empower communities with a hand up instead of a handout?

In 2004, the Modern Language Association noted a sense of crisis in higher language education driven by what was called “the nation’s language deficit.” Students are not learning languages at a rate that supports global interests, even those labeled “critical languages” by our State Department— Bengali, for example, is among these 13 languages. How can we begin to address this deficit if we cannot even find opportunities to learn these underrepresented languages?

Right now, there are people across the world who are left out of the conversation. They’re forgotten. It is time for us to transform our perception of language, culture, and engagement in this ever-shrinking world.

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Medical Innovation in the Corn Fields of Ohio

In rural Birmingham, OH, about 40 miles west of Cleveland, one of the world’s leaders in meat processing and food service is innovating in unexpected ways.  Bettcher Industries, founded in 1944 with $800 in a small machine shop in the Cleveland meat district, is innovating in very non-traditional markets and making an impact.

Bettcher’s history of growth lies in understanding and leveraging customers’ needs.  In the 1940’s, when meat companies didn’t have the money to buy new equipment because of the war their old machines were kept running by Louis Bettcher who made parts that couldn’t be replaced. Louis knew repairing these machines was temporary; the meat companies needed entirely new types of machines and systems, so he invented them!  Over time, Bettcher expanded the types of meat to be processed and added foodservice equipment.  Several of itsinventions have won global awards.  In addition to making meat processing more efficient, productive and safe, Bettcher ergonomically designed its equipment to minimize its customers’ employee injury and strain.  For Bettcher, a second generation family business, it’s customers’ employees are an extension of it’s own family of employees.  The strong family, compassionate culture, is palpable when you walk through Bettcher’s halls.

Even though Bettcher has successfully grown globally, it hasn’t rested on its laurels.  Bettcher has explored other markets to leverage their core competency in automating cutting operations and processes.   They realized their expertise and equipment was well suited for the medical industry.  For instance, the process to increase burn and wound healing includes removing the dead or decaying flesh in a way that leaves a smooth, evenly thick surface for grafts and healing.  Bettcher’s equipment dramatically improves the efficiency, quality and safety of these procedures over existing medical tools.  With Bettcher’s tools, the physician’s procedure time is reduced by 80%, which also reduces risk of infection and cost.  The design of the tools reduces the number of parts to be sterilized, reducing risk of cross-contamination and cost.   The tools also improve the quality of tissue and bone grafts.   And, given Bettcher’s emphasis on ergonomics, the design, material and efficiency of the tools reduces user injury. For the patient, the benefits are iterative since these procedures are repeated frequently:  shorter and easier procedures with less risk of infection, and hopefully less pain.

To commercialize the product line, Bettcher is collaborating with Community Tissue Services in Dayton, OH for additional testing and evaluation. Because of Bettcher’s collaborative culture, unique technology and job creation potential, they were granted $1MM by the Ohio Third Frontier to commercialize this new product line.  Who knew that in the farmland of Northeast Ohio, in an area dominated by corn and soy, tremendous advances in healing were being made?  You just may be surprised!