As if runaway health care costs aren’t enough – now, statistics show U.S. companies annually lose an estimated $2 billion because of employees’ inadequate language skills and poor cultural competence.

And the multilingual pipeline apparently is about as big as a straw: Further stats reveal just 9% of the U.S. population is bilingual and fewer than 8% of college students enroll in foreign language courses.

There may be help for employers, though. The National Security Education Program has launched The Language Flagship, an initiative to design, support and implement a new model for advanced language education.

Through a partnership among the federal government, education and business, The Language Flagship seeks to graduate students who will have excellent foreign language proficiency and strong international cultural skills.

Since 2004 The Language Flagship has graduated more than 600 students with superior language skills and has more than 1,300 enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs nationally.

Speaking at a recent event in Washington, D.C., William D. Zollars, chairman and CEO of YRC Worldwide, said, “If we don’t get more involved in becoming global companies, we won’t be a global power. It takes more than learning foreign language. Language shows effort but cultural understanding is the roadmap to success.”

Even lawmakers seem to support greater multilingual and cultural awareness initiatives. In the annual report for the 110th Congress, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) stated that “without foreign language skills and cultural knowledge, businesses face greater difficulties in exporting to overseas markets and competing against foreign-owned firms. U.S. business needs language, and business leaders are taking action to discuss their needs for the next generation of professionals.”

What do you think? Is investing in foreign language skills anywhere on your list of business musts? Why, why not? Sound off in the comments!

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