By Hsi-Ling Liao, Data Analyst & Research Associate at New American Economy.
The global market has become more interconnected than ever, creating opportunities for companies to grow and work with international partners and customers like never before.
In 2013, more than 300,000 US companies reported exporting goods abroad. Meanwhile, the customers that companies serve in the United States have become more diverse as well: according to American Community Survey, more than one out of every five people spoke a language other than English at home in 2015, an indicator of fluency. These trends have made employers increasingly seek hires with foreign language skills and cultural competency.
According to a recent report from New American Economy (NAE), a bipartisan group that researches how immigrants contribute to the US economy, the number of online job listings seeking workers with bilingual skills has almost doubled in the past five years. While there were only about 240,000 jobs for bilingual workers in 2010, the number reached more than 627,000 in 2015. The number of total jobs targeting bilingual workers rose by about 16 percent between 2010 and 2015.
NAE found that Spanish, Chinese, French, Korean, and Arabic were most widely sought by employers. While almost 455,000 job postings sought Spanish speakers in 2015—a total that outnumbered the other four languages combined—all five languages experienced strong growth in demand during the period studied. According to the report, the number of jobs requiring Chinese and Arabic skills increased by roughly 230 percent and 160 percent, respectively. The report also found that different language skills were highly sought after in different industries. While Spanish is most popular among auto parts companies and financial institutions, employers in the hospitality and retail industries are particularly interested in hiring Chinese speakers. On the other hand, French and Arabic are in demand among humanitarian organizations, and Korean speakers are sought after in the pharmaceutical and banking industries.
The types of jobs requiring foreign language skills are quite diverse, going far beyond interpreters and translators. The top occupations for bilingual workers range from customer-facing jobs such as sales representatives to managerial jobs in global companies and international humanitarian organizations. Foreign language skills are also crucial to those working in the healthcare industry, as the ability to communicate effectively with patients has been associated with higher patient satisfaction.
The benefits of learning a foreign language, of course, go beyond acquiring words alone. Understanding a foreign language has been shown to increase cultural understanding and enhance one’s empathy and acceptance of others. Multiple studies also show the cognitive benefits of bilingualism or multilingualism, such as improved attention to detail and better performance at tasks that require conflict management. These language and cognitive benefits have been reflected in the job market: Workers with foreign language skills often gain better job opportunities and higher wages.
Given the benefits of learning foreign languages in today’s labor market, it is clear that our society needs to expand access to language-learning opportunities and training programs. Financial support for bilingual programs in schools is crucial to their ongoing success. Creating a Seal of Biliteracy, as more than half of states have already done, is also important. The seal is a state policy that recognizes and rewards bilingualism in high school graduates by placing an indicator on graduates’ diplomas that can be easily viewed by potential employers. These programs and policies—along with simply promoting awareness among parents, students, and job seekers of the important advantages language leaning brings—can help equip our students to not only get by in tomorrow’s labor market, but to thrive in it.
About Hsi-Ling Liao
Hsi-Ling Liao is a data analyst and research associate at New American Economy. She holds a master of public administration degree from the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at New York University and a BA in economics from National Taiwan University.
Hsi-Ling participated in a recent education roundtable hosted by Rosetta Stone. Watch the live stream of “Advocating for Change: Connecting Our Nation Through Language.”
 U.S. Census Bureau, “A Profile of U.S. Importing and Exporting Companies: 2013-2014,” Oct. 16, 2015.
 New American Economy, “Not Lost in Translation: The Growing Importance of Foreign Language Skills in the U.S. Job Market,” Mar. 2017
 Quyen Ngo-Metzger et al., 2007. “Providing High-Quality Care for Limited English Proficient Patients: The Importance of Language Concordance and Interpreter Use, Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(2), 324-330. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2078537/
 “Top Ten Reasons to Learn Languages,” Lead with Languages, accessed July 24, 2017, http://www.leadwithlanguages.org/why-learn-languages/top-ten-reasons-to-learn-languages/.
 Viorica Marian and Anthony Shook, “The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual,” Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science 2012 (October 31, 2012), http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583091/.
 Jason Lee, “Bilingual Jobs: Foreign-language Careers on Rise,” Chicago Tribune, November 26, 2012, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-11-26/classified/chi-bilingual-jobs-20121126_1_foreign-language-foreign-language-fastest-growing-language; “Foreign Language Skills Provide Sharp Edge in the Job Market,” International Business Times, January 22, 2011, http:// www.ibtimes.com/foreign-language-skills-provide- sharp-edge-job-market-258085; Mary Walshok, et al., Closing America’s Job Gap, Wbusiness Books, 2011.