Wisconsin Language Roadmap to bolster economic competitiveness

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has received a two-year federal grant to conduct a statewide Language Roadmap Initiative to enhance the economic competitiveness of Wisconsin by strengthening language education for students across the state.

The grant is from The Language Flagship, an initiative of the National Security Education Program of the U.S. Department of Defense to change the way Americans learn languages through a groundbreaking approach to language education for students from kindergarten through college.

The Wisconsin Language Roadmap project will forge collaboration among leaders in business, nonprofits, education, government, healthcare and communities to develop a strategy for meeting current and projected workforce needs related to language skills and intercultural competencies.

“Creating a comprehensive strategy for growing language skills and intercultural competencies is essential for ensuring that Wisconsinites are able to take advantage of economic opportunities in the U.S. and across the globe,” said Guido Podestá, UW–Madison vice provost and dean of the International Division and a co-principal investigator of the initiative.

International commerce already plays a key role for business and organizations across the state. The value of Wisconsin exports accounted for $21 billion in 2016, and foreign-owned firms employed a total of 90,000 Wisconsin residents.

Katy Sinnott, vice president for international economic development, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and a member of the Wisconsin Language Roadmap advisory board, believes that language and intercultural workforce skills are directly tied to Wisconsin’s future global competitiveness.

“Wisconsin companies increasingly understand that exporting is not a luxury, but a necessity to remain competitive,” said Sinnott. “With more than 70 percent of the world’s demand outside the United States, it is essential that our companies expand their share of the global market. As our companies become part of the global market, the language and cultural awareness skills of their employees play an essential role in their success as an exporter. I frequently hear from companies that it is difficult to find the language skills they require to be highly successful in the global market. As Wisconsin works to increase the global competitiveness of our state, the workforce language skills are increasingly important.”

One of the initial activities of the Wisconsin Language Roadmap project will be to assess Wisconsin’s current “language landscape” in terms of current and projected needs for multilingual talent, and of current educational capacities and community resources.

In early 2018, the project will convene an invitation-only Statewide Language Roadmap Summit of Wisconsin leaders in business and industry, the nonprofit sector, K–16 education, community organizations and government to discuss this assessment of current capacities and future needs, and to formulate recommendations for innovation. The results of the summit will lead to the collaborative development of the Wisconsin Language Roadmap, a document that will make key recommendations and propose action items for meeting the state’s future multilingual needs.

UW–Madison leaders of the Language Roadmap project emphasize that while this particular initiative focuses on languages in terms of workforce needs and professional opportunities, there are many other important reasons to study languages and to support language education.

“While our focus in this project is on the critical importance of language education for Wisconsin in terms of its economic impact, we don’t want to lose sight of the value of language learning in a broader sense,” said Dianna Murphy, associate director of the UW–Madison Language Institute and Russian Flagship program, and executive director of the Language Roadmap project. “Some of our students are studying a language that’s spoken at home or is a part of their family’s heritage. For others, they need competence in a second language for their research in other fields.”

The Wisconsin Language Roadmap Initiative is a joint project of the UW-Madison Language Institute in the College of Letters & Science and the International Division. Co-principal investigators are Rob Howell, professor of German and director of the Language Institute; Catherine Stafford, associate professor of Spanish and director of the Doctoral Program in Second Language Acquisition; and Guido Podestá. Dianna Murphy is executive director. Ryan Goble, a PhD candidate in the Second Language Acquisition PhD Program, is the project’s coordinator.

The project is supported by a grant from The Language Flagship of the National Security Education Program in the U.S. Department of Defense, with substantial support from the University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Letters & Science and the International Division.