Being multilingual becoming more essential

At the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Jin Li teaches Chinese, a language for which there is growing demand.
At the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Jin Li teaches Chinese, a language for which there is growing demand. (Globe Staff Photo / John Bohn)

A US company merges with a Mexican firm, a software manufacturer establishes an office abroad, a bank opens a branch in a Portuguese-speaking community: For one reason or another, employees are finding out they had better acquire a second language.

"Just English" is not a good answer when prospective employers ask what languages you speak, said Jim Smith, executive director of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. "With globalization an increasing phenomenon, if someone only understands English, to an employer, they're less and less useful to the world," he said.

For an increasing number of careers, being bilingual puts an employee a step ahead; in many fields, it's essential. Flight attendants, sales representatives, geologists, paralegals, travel agents, bank tellers, and social workers all find a second language helpful or necessary in their jobs.

"To know a second language is particularly important for healthcare providers, to have a diverse culture in the people you employ," said Thom Bosanquet, director of employment and employer relations for Lahey Clinic.

"If you work in healthcare," he emphasized, "you have to be very careful to get it exactly right." In fact, he said, healthcare interpreting as a career in itself has skyrocketed. Spanish and French/Haitian Creole are common languages there.

Mandarin Chinese and Brazilian Portuguese are growing in demand for businesses. "You've got to go where the jobs are, and China is big in the labor market," said Bill Hayes, director of field administration for staffing firm Robert Half International.

Employees of toy, clothing, and shoe companies go to China on business trips or to live, he said. And he noted the growing Brazilian Portuguese population in Boston, Chelsea, and Framingham, along with increased trade with Brazil.

Hayes suggested visiting local libraries or adult education centers for introductory tapes or courses, then supplementing that with volunteer work in a local ethnic community to build language skills quickly.

Options for learning another language are growing, too. Each method has benefits and drawbacks, so survey the possibilities and select what's right for your style and needs.

Language schools offer small groups or private instruction, and adult education centers are more reasonably priced. Online, you can find local groups that brush up on languages in a social setting.

The 125-year-old Berlitz program, with locations in downtown Boston and Wellesley, will customize courses, offering compressed versions if time is an issue. It includes training to help understand the culture, too, explained Bonnie Zaman, local director. With native-fluent instructors, you begin speaking and thinking in the target language quickly, she said. Tuition is $1,199 plus registration fees for level one, with 10 levels concluding at a highly proficient level. Employers sometimes assist with tuition.

Zaman said students should be able to navigate a foreign country with basic skills after the first two levels. The school also offers tapes and programs starting at $30.

Foreign languages are the largest section in the catalog of the Cambridge Adult Ed Center. Chinese has grown markedly more popular, particularly for business people and travelers, said Smith, the director. Those with jobs in social services, healthcare, or banking are taking Spanish or Portuguese.

Smith also pointed to the value of learning a language in making a person "culturally competent." Taking a course in Turkish or Arabic demonstrates a creative, global vision the company might seek to keep it strong into the future.

Two 10-week sessions at the Cambridge center, at about $163 each, can get you on a conversant level, Smith said. Intensive programs or conversational classes are also offered.

At Boston Center for Adult Education, eight-week language courses run $138 to $184. Spanish immersion for travelers begins in December at $214, with French to follow.

The school has expanded language offerings in recent years based on requests, said chief operating officer Susie Brown. "Chinese is really growing, and there are more and more requests for Russian," she said.

A Boston Public Library card opens another world of language opportunities. You can borrow or use a range of tapes, CDs, and downloadable programs. Audio-visual librarian Denice Thornhill suggests using a portable audio player to sample different makes and styles.

Some brands come in audio only, others are interactive, allowing you to write, speak, and be corrected. Thornhill has used different types, but when she went to Japan for the World Science Fiction Convention, she bought Rosetta Stone tapes for $600 to learn Japanese basics. The Cambridge Public Library also has an array of tapes and programs.