As a national debate rages over whether young Americans seeking to compete in the global marketplace should speak more than English, Utah already has an answer.
The state credits its multilingual and well-educated workforce for helping it heal from the Great Recession at a faster pace than the nation as a whole.
According to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget Demographic and Economic Analysis, Utah’s nonagricultural unemployment rate hovered at 6 percent in June, down from 6.9 percent in June 2011. That’s well below the national unemployment rate of 8.2 percent.
Utah’s global exports have doubled in the past five years. That’s due, in part, to a state workforce that can sell goods to foreign countries—in their own languages.
“Utah’s workforce has a rare and unique skill that no other state in the country can boast—Utah has an unmatched number of bilingual residents of all ages,” notes a 2011 report by the Economic Development Corporation of Utah.
According to the report, fully one-third of the state’s workforce is bilingual.
Utah’s bilingual workforce is tied in large part to the state’s Mormons and their religious practice of sending young men and women fluent in foreign languages across the globe to serve as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Two famous former missionaries: Mitt Romney, who speaks French, and Jon Huntsman, who speaks Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Hokkein.)
Mormons made up about 58 percent of Utah’s population in 2009, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Although the church can’t say how many of its members have served throughout its history, today more than 55,000 missionaries are at 340 mission sites across the globe; about half of them learn a foreign language at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, where some 50 languages are taught.
According to the state development corporation, the National Security Agency chose Utah as a “language-analyst” center, thanks to the Provo facility’s renowned language-instruction talents.
Utah’s bilingual workforce was a key factor in persuading American companies with global reach to locate headquarters or hubs in Utah. Some include Goldman Sachs, Procter and Gamble, Adobe, eBay, IM Flash Technologies, Twitter, and Oracle, according to the office of Gov. Gary Herbert.
Utah’s enthusiasm for foreign languages starts in elementary school. Several offer a Chinese-English dual immersion curriculum; 85 high schools teach Mandarin; and 12 high schools offer Arabic.
Some Utah schools teach Ute, Navajo, Japanese, Russian, Italian, and Hebrew, along with more common choices like Spanish and German. In all, the state’s elementary schools have 78 immersion programs.
The state’s foreign-language fever migrates from its public schools to its two largest universities: 77 percent of Brigham Young University students speak one or more foreign languages, while students at the University of Utah collectively speak about 180 languages.
Utah has always marketed its multilingual workforce, said Ally Isom, deputy chief of staff for the governor. “We have always considered it an asset. It has grown in importance as we see the increasing relevance … of the new world economy.”
This article appears in the July 28, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.