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Online Resources: Digests

September 1992

Foreign Languages and International Business

Geoffrey M. Voght and Ray Schaub, Eastern Michigan University

As the twentieth-century draws to a close, more and more Americans are beginning to understand that a new, highly interdependent global marketplace of producers and consumers has emerged. Leaders in many professions now realize that fluency in a foreign language and multicultural sensitivity are essential in their fields if the United States is to participate effectively in this global community and if we expect to maintain our standard of living in the context of increasing global competition and cooperation.

Compared to other countries, such as Japan and the Western European nations, the United States is ill-equipped in certain ba sic respects to take an effective role in the international community. We lack citizens in many professional fields who can communic ate in foreign languages and understand other cultures and value systems. For the most part, our schools do not incorporate global perspectives in their curricula. Most college students do not develop the expertise to understand even one foreign language and culture. Consequently, most American professionals, whether in business, government, medicine, law, or other fields_lack the basic skills needed to cultivate working relationships with colleagues in foreign countries and do not have easy access to new ideas and developments from abroad.

For these reasons, the U.S. needs to train many more professionals who can communicate effectively with foreigners and who are sensitive to cultural differences. Knowledge of foreign languages and familiarity with foreign cultures are a key to securing our national well-being in the twenty-first century.

Academia Responds to National Needs

This realization has prompted reforms in many institutions of higher education and public schools throughout the U.S., inclu ding the introduction of global perspectives in both elementary and secondary school curricula. In colleges and universities, intern ationally focused courses have been created, and interdisciplinary programs of study requiring foreign language proficiency and cultural knowledge have been developed. The application of foreign language and cultural studies to the field of business has emerged as a prominent component in these recent reforms.

One notable example is the Language and International Trade program at Eastern Michigan University (EMU).Implemented in 1979, it was the first undergraduate program in the U.S. to combine requirements in advanced foreign language proficiency, area studies , international business, economics, and practical training. The program has served as a model for the development of similar progra ms at Clemson University, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and many other institutions.

International education is interdisciplinary by definition, requiring collaboration across traditional disciplinary lines wi thin academia. It also requires cooperation among educational institutions, government agencies, and the private sector.

Governmental Assistance for Languages and Business

The growing awareness of the connection between national security and prosperity, on the one hand, and foreign language expe rtise and international competence, on the other hand, prompted federal agencies and private foundations to begin to fund innovation s in this area in the late 1970s. Very prominent among these funding agencies were the U.S. Department of Education (Title VI and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education) and the Exxon Education Foundation.

The most significant recent example of this trend is the National Security Education Act (NSEA), which was signed into law on December 4, 1991. NSEA created a public trust fund to administer three new programs dealing with foreign languages and international education: 1) undergraduate study abroad; 2) graduate fellowships for students who agree to enter government service or to teach; and 3) institutional support for foreign language and international studies in higher education.

Another important federal initiative is the Omnibus Trade Act of 1988. One section of this legislation, for which the curriculum of Eastern Michigan University's undergraduate Language and International Trade program served as a primary model, funded the c reation of sixteen new Centers for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) through Title VI of the U.S. Department of Education.

Co-Curricular Program Components

Many of the new interdisciplinary business and foreign language programs encourage students to spend some time acquiring pra ctical experience by working for a company, either in the United States or abroad. Other institutions have created study abroad opportunities focused specifically on international business practices and foreign language use. Foreign locations offer the advantages of total immersion, direct contact with foreign business people in a variety of economic sectors, and personal observation of foreign business operations.

With references to foreign-based program components and to studies done in the U.S., site visits and work assignments at businesses, chambers of commerce, government agencies, schools, and other locations are a normal part of these new academic programs of study. Such experiences, requiring collaboration with the public and private sectors, are considered by many educators to be essent ial in laying a broad foundation of professional training and awareness for students who will represent U.S. professions in the world at large.

Another component often present in programs combining foreign language and cultural studies with business is access to exami nations leading to certificates and diplomas in business foreign languages offered by foreign educational, business, and governmenta l organizations. Examples are those administered by the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry for French; the Madrid Chamber of Commerce and Industry for Spanish; and the Goethe Institute, Carl Duisberg Centers, and Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry for German.

Professional Development for Language and Business Educators

An increasing variety of training opportunities exists for language teachers wishing to learn how to teach business foreign languages, foreign business practices, and aspects of foreign culture that affect business relations. For example, each summer the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry offers programs on the use and teaching of commercial French and French business culture. Like wise, the Goethe Institute and Carl Duisberg Centers have periodically organized business German teacher trainer programs. Similar p rograms for teaching commercial Spanish are available through private educational organizations in Mexico and Spain.

In recent years, various universities have developed summer programs for professional development in the teaching of foreign languages and cultures for business. For example, for three years, the University of South Carolina has offered summer seminars on the teaching of commercial Spanish and Hispanic cultures for business, in conjunction with their CIBER; business German training is available at Michigan State University, with support from the MSU CIBER; and San Diego State University has offered training in the teaching of commercial French and French business practices in collaboration with the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Similar professional development opportunities are available for business educators wishing to internationalize their expert ise and offerings to students. The American Academy of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), for example, has periodically organiz ed seminars and workshops for deans, administrators, and directors of business programs on strategies for globalizing the business curriculum. The AACSB has also published curriculum resource guides that provide supplemental material useful in internationalizing v arious subject areas, such as finance, accounting, marketing, and organizational behavior/human resource management. In collaboration with the Association of American Colleges (AAC), the AACSB has initiated a Business School/Liberal Arts Project to encourage inter disciplinary approaches to international business education. This project has two components: 1) a matching grants program for innovative strategies aimed at globalization and 2) a new publication called Open Borders (starting in fall, 1992) that will disseminate information on models for internationalizing the curriculum through interdisciplinary approaches.

The CIBERs are also heavily involved in professional development for business faculty members. The University of South Carolina and the University of Hawaii, for example, hold summer institutes to train business teachers in integrating global dimensions in to their courses. CIBERs at Bentley College, Memphis State University, and other institutions organize summer study tours for business faculty, mostly to Europe and Asia.

Since 1982, Eastern Michigan University has hosted an annual conference on foreign languages and cultures for world business and the professions, which includes workshops, concurrent sessions and general sessions on all aspects of interdisciplinary language, business, and professional education. Considered by many to be the most important annual meeting of its type in the U.S., this conference is truly interdisciplinary in nature. The program includes both foreign language and international business educators, experienced international business people, and representatives of local, state, and federal government agencies involved in promoting global business.

Language teachers seeking training in the application of foreign language and cultural instruction to business, as well as business educators wanting to internationalize their courses and programs, can also draw on a significant body of published information. Hundreds of articles and more than a dozen books covering these new academic fields have been published in the past decade. A bibliography listing over 200 such publications was printed in the Modern Language Journal in 1991 (see Grosse Voght, 1991). Papers from the annual EMU conferences are included in the ERIC database and can be read on microfiche at over 900 subscribing libraries, institutions, and organizations worldwide.


After more than a decade of intensive experimentation and development, the field of interdisciplinary language and business studies is firmly established in U.S. higher education. The consensus for globalizing business education at colleges and universities in combination with the liberal arts has reached broad proportions. Internationalization is also one of the most important issues in business education in public schools, with significant initiatives occurring in more than a dozen states. On the basis of these a nd other long-overdue educational reforms, the U.S. will be able to compete and cooperate much more effectively in the new global community.


America in transition: The international frontier. (1989). Washington, DC: National Governor's Association Task Force on In ternational Education.

An action agenda for American competitiveness. (1986). Washington, DC: ACE, Business-Higher Education Forum, Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition/Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future.

Brademas, J. (1987). Growing up internationally: America faces global realities. Educational Record, pp6-11.

Grosse, C.U., & Voght, G.M. (1990). Foreign languages for business and the professions at US colleges and universities. Modern Language Journal, 74, pp 36-47.

Grosse, C.U., & Voght, G.M. (1991). The evolution of languages for specific purposes in the United States. Modern Language Journal, 75, pp 181-95.

Hoegl, J. (1986). Education in the world system: The demand for language and international proficiency in economic development and national security. Foreign Language Annals, 19, pp 19-26.

Inman, M. (1985). Language and cross-cultural training in American multinational corporations. Modern Language Journal, 69, pp 247- 55.

International education: Cornerstone of competition. (1986). Washington, DC: Southern Governors' Association Advisory Council on Education.

King, S.C., & Torres, S.E. (Eds.). (1989). Proceedings of the Clemson Conference on language and international trade. Clemson, SC: Clemson University.

Lambert, R.D., & Moore, S.J. (1990). Foreign language in the workplace. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 511. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Simon, P. (1980). The tongue-tied American: Confronting the foreign language crisis. New York: Continuum Publishing Co.

Spalding, J. (Ed.). (1989). The international dimension in U.S. higher education: New directions in business school/liberal arts cooperation. Conference proceedings. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Spencer, S.I. (Ed.). (1987). Foreign languages and international trade: A global perspective. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Staczek, J. (1984). A case for the FL in the MBA and MIB. Journal of Language for International Business, 1, pp 1-8.

Stone, G.B., & Rubenfeld, S.A. (1986). A useful and realistic option for the business student. Journal of Language for International Business, 2, pp 15-25.

Tsongas, P.E. (1981). Foreign languages and America's interests. Foreign Language Annals, 14, pp 115-19.

Voght, G., & Schaub, R. (Eds.). (1992). Languages and cultures for business and the professions: Selected proceedings of the 10th annual EMU conference on languages and communication for world business and the professions. Ypsilanti, MI: Eastern Michigan University.

This report was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Dept. of Education, under contract no. RI88062010. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or ED.