On Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, the Army Times posted an article entitled “Foreign language program rules modified“.
The article explained that there is a program in the U.S. military that allows soldiers with foreign language skills to earn monthly bonus pay:
“The Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus program has been modified, allowing payments to certain language-skilled soldiers, regardless of their MOS or duty positions.”
Known as the FLPB program, it offers soldiers the opportunity to earn an extra $400 per month for one additional language and up to $1000 per month for a combination of other languages. There are exceptions to the policy and soldiers must pass language proficiency tests in order to qualify for the program.
The military as an advocate of language learning
When a major organization actually pays employees a bonus for having demonstrated language proficiency, that shows how much the organization values the skill. In other words, they literally put their money where their mouth is. However you might feel about the U.S. military, you have to admit that they are single-handedly demonstrating that learning foreign languages can be beneficial to your career.
Military around the world value language skills
In case you’re thinking that this is just a U.S. phenomenon, think again.
A quick search of “foreign languages Canadian military” turned up a result of over 3 million entries on Google. One of the top hits was for the Canadian Forces Language School.
Googling “foreign languages British military” resulted in over 19 million entries. Among them was a page called “Can I join?” The site answers questions for those considering a career in the military. It states that anyone hoping for a career as an officer must have passed courses in either sciences or foreign languages. The British military also runs the Defense School of Languages.
If you are lobbying for language program funding, salute the soldiers
If you are an administrator or manager lobbying to keep your language program alive, look for news stories about how the military in your country values languages.
Here’s a hint: Don’t use search terms like “international languages” or “world languages”, go old school and look up “foreign languages” or “second languages”.
In your letters and reports, speak to the fact that the military supports, values and encourages learning languages, which demonstrates a need for language programs in schools to thrive. Students of the 21st century need all kinds of skills, and global communication skills are among them.
There are so many languages and so many words. Advocating for the survival of our language programs may actually mean advocating for long-term global peace. But try telling that to a politician and you’d be laughed out of his or her office. Instead, cite the forward thinking of the military in encouraging the development of its staff through foreign languages, noting how much they value language learning as a valuable 21st century skill.
Why do companies ignore multilingualism as a valid skill?
My question is: How can we expand this initiative and get major corporations to follow suit and pay bonuses to multilingual employees?
Over the past year, I have heard from U.S. colleagues that there have been severe funding cuts to language programs at the primary, secondary and post-secondary levels.
If corporate America (and corporate Canada, and corporate Everywhere) said, “Hey, world! We need workers skilled in global communication, world languages and intercultural understanding,” you could bet your bottom dollar that governments wouldn’t be cutting funding to language programs.
Education and language advocates spend time lobbying the government to re-instate funding to language programs. While noble, I wonder if a different approach might be more effective? Conversations with those who work in corporations, in HR departments, in marketing and sales and global business, citing examples of how the military offers bonus pay to bilingual and multilingual solders, might spark ideas on how other organizations can leverage, instead of undervalue, or worse, ignore, the depth of skill and understanding that multilingual employees bring to an organization. Those conversations might take much longer to result in changes, but I wonder if the effort would be worth the investment of time and effort to start that dialogue today?
This post comes with a caveat. In no way am I in favour of war, military occupation of foreign territories or activities resulting in the loss of human life through weapons or attack. I don’t care what side you are on. When people you love die due to war, it tears us all apart.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.