Selling Buicks in Sapporo: Can US business learn other tongues?

Wisps of fog off the Pacific still hung over the runway as my 7 a.m. flight took off from Monterey for Los Angeles. Inside, though, no one seemed foggy. Despite the hour, when passengers are normally tight-mouthed and somnolent, the Boeing 727 was a Babel of excited foreign voices. The few English-speaking passengers looked around, puzzled.

This mini-UN, my German-spouting seatmate explained, switching to a Southern drawl, was a group of simultaneous interpreters setting off for the Olympics. Like the athletes, they had been training intensively all year. They are students at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a major supplier of linguists to the games.

Hundreds of thousands of young Americans need to gain such easy language facility, say some of the shrewdest US exporters, troubled by America's burgeoning trade gap.

That gap, now running at an annual rate of $113 billion, is caused mostly by the strong dollar, cheaper labor abroad, and high-quality, competing products. The currency differential will inevitably shrink. But the tough competition in many lines of world trade will remain, demanding business representatives who understand the subtleties of their buyers and local markets.

World trade has become a permanent and increasingly competitive Olympics. And knowledge of a language of a major trading country can give that extra edge in sales or marketing.

''It's the reverse of the situation in certain sports,'' says a San Jose exporter of electronic cables, jacks, and knobs - low-tech parts for high-tech. ''As human skill in luge sledding or bicycle racing becomes more evenly matched, the extra edge goes to the country that develops new hardware - a slicker East German luge or flatter bike spokes. But in trade, we often see the hardware from two countries becoming more alike. In that case the edge may go to the seller who has more intimacy with his customer's language, customs, and market needs.''

Glynn Wood, academic dean at Monterey Institute, puts it succinctly: ''You can buy very well in English, but you don't sell so well. . . . You and I can buy all the Toyotas we need without speaking a word of Japanese. But try selling Buicks in Sapporo.''

There are, of course, variations on the need for other tongues. Generally speaking, sales executives and marketing planners can get along in northern Europe - Scandinavia, Germany, Holland - with fair success because of the prevalence of English-speaking businessmen and women there. But in the Francophone world, particularly former French-African nations and even Arab Lebanon, most of the merchant class either feels more comfortable in French or speaks little English.

Even in countries where most of the business elite speaks English, particular enterprises need the local tongue. Until 5 or 10 years ago, American banks in Japan were there mainly to serve American businessmen. Now they're competing for Japanese business.

Dr. Wood points particularly to export-import companies, banks, and companies carrying out managerial operations overseas as needing local languages.

Bechtel Corporation is a good example. ''Previously,'' Wood says, ''Bechtel would knock a hole in New Zealand for a year, then they would build a dam in Brazil next year. Their crews were skilled nomads, self-sufficient teams who could get along with English.

''But Bechtel has recently been taking on management contracts. The company builds an airport, and then stays on to run it - food, services, ground crews, etc. So they've become quite serious about people who know Arabic, or whatever the local language is.''

Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic are, at the moment, languages in which US international business needs are greatest. And they look like long-term needs as well.

Student language choices don't always match those business requirements. According to the Modern Language Association of America, college language enrollments in degree programs in the fall of 1983 totaled this way: Spanish - 386,200; French - 270,100; German - 128,200; Italian - 38,700; Russian - 30,400; Latin - 24,200; Greek - 19,100; Hebrew - 18,200; Japanese - 16,100; Chinese - 13 ,200; Portuguese - 4,400.

The Berlitz Language Center in New York reports that some 35 percent of its students in the US study Spanish; 25 percent French; 9 percent German; 7 percent Italian, and 3 percent Japanese. (Fifteen percent are foreigners studying English.)

Is fluency in a language needed enough to catapult a young man or woman upward in the international business world?

No, says Arthur H. Rosen, president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. ''I see lots of young graduates who speak excellent Chinese but can't find a job. They need an MBA from a recognized business school as well, if they want to be something other than a translator for life.''

Wood and Mr. Rosen agree that such double training provides the best credentials for a young man or woman hoping to rise in this era of world markets.

The US, like its superpower rival, the USSR, had similar reasons for not developing language capabilities: Both have continent-size internal markets. Both have had a need to assimilate a varied mix of language groups - Russia as its empire expanded, the United States as immigrants flowed in. Those American immigrant groups needed to learn English to get jobs and to get along. They wanted their children to learn the central tongue, even if they continued to speak the old language over dinner.

For Americans, breaking out of English chauvinism was difficult, even when the US became a world power and international trader. After World War II, US products often sold on quality or innovation alone. Many Americans abroad found the elite they dealt with wanted to practice English. So, in Japan for example, Americans supposed - wrongly - that the language General MacArthur grafted onto the culture was widely spoken. When they wandered off the main street, they found otherwise.

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