The Boston Language Institute

Breaking down language barriers

Students load on language courses to avoid being lost in translation

Lisa Merolla and Lizzy Snell

While some students regard foreign language courses as mere graduation requirements, more and more have taken on language courses and minors to appear more marketable in the growing global business world. With more foreign companies opening branches on American soil and the United States' own expansion in foreign markets, the demand for foreign language speakers is on the rise and students and business people alike have taken note.


The Boston Language Institute enrolls an average of 3,000 people a year, and offers classes in more than 140 languages from Spanish to Swahili. The programs attract people who are preparing for a trip abroad, marrying into a foreign culture and or studying for business purposes, Boston Language Institute President Siri Karm Singh Khalsa said.

With a more developed global market, he added that an increasing number of employees must communicate in other languages. "We used to run on the assumption that if we wanted to do business with someone else, they'd speak English," Khalsa said. "In the past 30 years of so, we've learned that though you can buy in any language, you need to sell in the language of the customer." Employers value people who can speak the common European languages - Spanish, French, German and Italian - as well as Asian and Middle Eastern languages, Khalsa said. Since Sept. 11, the Boston Language Institute has seen higher enrollment in the Arabic, Farsi, Chinese and Japanese classes, he added. "Before 9/11 we had about three calls a week for Arabic," Khalsa said. "After 9/11, we had about 75 calls a week." Khalsa emphasized language proficiency alone is not enough in the business world. Businesses must also be culturally aware to succeed in global communication. "It's not just about language to language," Khalsa said. "Now it's about culture to culture. People from different cultures process information differently, think differently and understand the same situation differently."

The Boston Language Institute frequently receives calls from companies looking to educate their employees on the proper etiquette to use when dealing with foreign business partners, Khalsa said. For example, American businesses working with their Japanese counterparts sometimes neglect to take their cultural differences into account - the Japanese, for example, greet each other with a bow. The higher the other person's status, the deeper the bow.


Many Boston-based companies have caught on to the multi-lingual trend. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, headquartered in downtown Boston, hires bilingual employees for its customer service and sales departments, said Liberty Mutual University Relations Director Shawn Tubman. The company runs one of its websites entirely in Spanish, and has developed into a bilingual sales team that handles inquires and comments.

"We want a workforce that as closely as possible mirrors the changing marketplace," he said.

According to Tubman, Liberty Mutual values Spanish-speaking skills as an "asset in the interviewing process," and looks for both internship experience and Spanish proficiency when assessing a prospective employee.

Other companies that offer foreign-language options to customers include CVS pharmacies, where customers can dial a 1-800 number and speak with an employee in any one of twenty languages, and Massachusetts General Hospital, which provides patients with a free interpreter through the Medical Interpreter Services program. According to its website, the program hires people who are fluent in both English and at least one other language, including oral and written communication.


Boston University romance studies department chair Christopher Maurer said former language majors have used their skills in jobs ranging from international education to journalism to government positions.

"If you check any of the employment websites from to, you will turn up hundreds of positions that call for bilingual and bicultural skills," he said in an email.

BU Chinese professor Xiaoyang Zhou said knowing more languages will help students navigate the job market.

"The global and international communication is important," she said. "The more languages that you know, you'll have a better future filled with opportunity."

More than 8,000 students are currently enrolled in classes offered by BU's two language departments, romance studies and modern language and comparative literature, Maurer said.

College of Arts and Sciences freshman Caitlin Culbertson, an art history major and French minor, said she has always liked the French culture and wants to study abroad in France.

"My advisor said knowing French helps art history majors," she said. "I am also taking German to help with art history translations."

CAS sophomore Nicole Gonyea, also a French minor, said he thinks it is an advantage for students to know another language when applying for jobs.

"It's imperative for students to learn another language," she said. "We don't live in a world where we can't have that."

Colleges across the nation have reported an increase in the number of students studying a language, according to the Modern Language Association. Between 2002 and 2006, Arabic enrollment increased 127% and Chinese enrollment increased 51%.

But learning a language is not the only part of communicating effectively on an international scale, said BU French professor Paula Hennessey.

"We can see how the world is reflected through other cultures," she said. "We can't teach a language without learning about the culture."

Read the original article in The Daily Free Press.