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English Is an Economic Stimulus

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I recently made a tough personal decision to leave the publishing industry in order to return to teaching, my profession for much of the 1990s (see "I Just Quit My Job...Am I Crazy?"). Back then, I mostly taught high school students, with some weekend and summer gigs teaching adults. This time, I'm focusing primarily on adults who don't yet speak English proficiently, because I believe these folks are more vital than ever to the well-being of U.S. businesses and to our country as a whole. Let me explain.

If you're trying to quickly stimulate the economy, as we currently are, you need to direct money where it can have an effect right away. We've already heard a lot about using the Congressional stimulus package to fund infrastructure projects that are "shovel ready" -- in other words, good to go.

Adults with limited English proficiency, many in the prime of their working lives, are very much good to go. Most are highly motivated and already in the labor force. Quite a few whom I know are eager to train for jobs, such as nursing, where we have shortages. Others are simply champing at the bit to better their economic circumstances and those of the companies they work for now. The one obstacle is English, for which affordable (and that often means free) instruction is hard to find, including classes offered in the workplace. Where good, accessible programs are available, they are usually run on a shoestring budget. Realities like those tend to dampen motivation.

Now you might be thinking back to the great waves of migration from Europe, when most people who came to the United States learned English on their own -- eventually. Most of today's immigrants will learn English that way, too -- eventually. But if we want to increase their productivity rapidly, we need to accelerate their learning of English. It's not about charity for an unfortunate few -- it's a practical step that's in the interest of individual businesses and the nation in a time of economic crisis. It's no time to squander valuable human talent and energy.

Indeed, in his December Forethought piece in HBR, BV Krishnamurthy writes, "A downturn presents the perfect downtime to enhance the skills your people really need to excel." Downturns are often precisely when a slowdown in the daily work flow gives employees enough breathing room to better themselves. And, as Krishnamurthy notes, that "pays off when economic normalcy returns." For most U.S. businesses, I would argue, English proficiency is the skill with the greatest potential for big short- and long-term payoffs in productivity, not to mention motivation. If you ask them, my students will confirm that loudly and with conviction. And the better their English gets, the more persuasive they become. How can any business afford to let that kind of enthusiasm and progress go to waste?

To be sure, English classes are not a magic potion for getting a struggling business -- or the U.S. economy -- back on track. To pay off, good education must go hand in hand with other smart improvements, I (as a teacher) can assure you. But improving the English skills of a very diverse workforce is a highly nutritious ingredient in what needs to be the most invigorating soup our nation, and so many individual businesses within it, have had to cook for themselves in at least 75 years. Let's start filling the pot.

Steven DeMaio teaches English at the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts

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