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Foreign language skills in demand by Mississippi businesses

If you call the law offices of Michael Cox of Biloxi after hours and get the answering machine, the message will be played in both English and Spanish. Cox, who advertises “Habla Espanol,” is one of a number of business people throughout the state who recognize the importance of foreign language skills.

“As uncomfortable as the usual lay person might feel when he or she comes in contact with our legal system, imagine how it feels if you do not fully understand the language,” Cox said. “The ability to communicate with a client in his native language is immensely valuable for attorneys. It helps the attorney to get a full and accurate understanding of the client’s point of view. Finally, communicating with a person in his native language makes him feel a lot more comfortable, which is very important because it allows the attorney to build the confidence and trust with his client which is essential to effective representation.”

Cox is married to Myra Marrero-Cox, who was born and raised in a small Hispanic community in San Francisco. She works at the Biloxi Outpatient Surgery Center, on occasion helping patients who need the assistance of a Spanish translator.

“Communicating and providing patient teaching has been important for me and our patients,” said Cox. “Acknowledgement of cultural diversity is important, and the need for bilingual programs and businesses will be in increasing demand.”

The number of Hispanics in Mississippi has been steadily growing, particularly on the Coast with the large number of new jobs created in recent years by the hospitality industry. The Coast also has a large Vietnamese community, so Vietnamese language skills are also in demand by business people, health service providers, and public entities such as police departments and courts.

Dr. Michael Metcalf, executive director of the Croft Institute for International Studies at the University of Mississippi, said foreign language skills are becoming increasingly important not only because of the increasing cultural diversity of the American population, but because the skills can provide a competitive edge competing in today’s global economy.

The Croft Institute was established in 1997 with a $60-million endowment, the largest gift ever to a Mississippi educational institution and, at the time, the 25th largest endowment in history to a U.S. university. The institute was established by the John C. Bancroft Educational and Charitable Fund. Bancroft is the founder of Croft Metals, Inc., located in McComb, a manufacturer of doors and windows.

The purpose of the Croft Institute is to internationalize Mississippi and the region. It is considered one of the most unique business and educational resources ever created in the U.S.

“Essentially we’re back in the situation where language becomes more important domestically in the U.S. than it has been for most of the century,” Metcalf said. “For political and economic reason, for the past 20 years we have been in a new phase of expanded immigration into the U.S. That has created a great need for interpreters that affects businesses, health services, and all types of governmental agencies. Particularly we are seeing a need for interpreters in court.”

Metcalf said the country is moving towards becoming multi-lingual again. Prior to World War II, it was common to find communities where German, Swedish and other foreign languages were spoken frequently. In the 1880s the greatest number of book titles in the U.S. were published in non-English languages.

The use of German was actually outlawed in certain areas during World War I, and the trend discouraging non-English languages in the U.S. continued during and after World War II. But Metcalf believes the pendulum is now swinging the other way. Foreign language skills are becoming more important and valued. In some cases advertising is being geared to specific ethnic groups.

“You can buy anything you want to in English,” Metcalf said. “The question is, ‘Can you sell what you want to sell in English?’ Many places you can. In other places you can’t. It is business sense to know your market. Knowing your market is knowing your culture. Mass advertising in U.S. is very hip in terms of keeping up with culture changes in the U.S. Internationally you can’t sell as effectively without knowing the language and the culture.”

There is no doubt that English is the current common language of business of the world. But having foreign language skills can help facilitate communication. An example Metcalf gives is that someone who does business in Brazil, and has people on the company’s negotiating and sales teams who speak Brazilian Portuguese, has a tremendous advantage. He explains that it isn’t just a matter of knowing the words, but knowing nuances such as how formal or informal to be, or how to relate differently to a young person than an older person from the same culture.

In the past when languages were taught in college, much of the emphasis was placed primarily on being able to read and write languages in order to read the great authors. Metcalf said the premise of language training has now shifted.

“Now languages are stressed not so much for traditional reasons, but more to enable graduates of our colleges and universities learn how to better negotiate in a multi-cultural world,” he said. “We have changed the way we teach. It used to be mainly for reading and grammar, but not for oral communication. Since 1980 we have stressed reading, writing, speaking and listening. So it is much more applied language learning.”

Another important change is who is studying languages. It used to be primarily liberal arts students. Now languages are being stressed in areas such as business, law and medicine. Currently the University of Mississippi School of Nursing in Jackson is interested in bringing language classes to nursing students.

“This reflects what has happened in other parts of country,” Metcalf said. “You need to communicate with patients to be successful. So you see that we have not only changed how we teach foreign languages, but who is being taught.”

Metcalf said in order to prepare future generations for doing business in the global economy, and in an increasingly multi-cultural U.S., more Mississippi students need to be given the opportunity to study abroad to experience cultures other than their own. He said students need to learn the skills of navigating cross-cultural differences, skills that will also translate into working effectively with different subsets of American culture.

“Businesses can be very supportive of developing their future executives by helping to provide internships here at home, and also abroad where they have international operations,” Metcalf said. “The significance of international trade in the American economy has grown enormously in the past 25 years. Helping support students to study abroad is a wonderful investment in our business future. Business is now inexorably international in nature, and that isn’t going to change. Businesses can do something about shaping the future of the Mississippi workforce by supporting studying abroad, and by supporting more instruction in foreign languages in our schools.”

For more information about the Croft Institute of International Studies, Metcalf can be reached at (662) 232-1501. The Web site for the Croft Institute is www.olemiss.edu/depts/croft/.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

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