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Business value of a learning a second language

My niece, who is in college, asked me the other day about the value of learning Spanish for her profession, which is nursing. Typically, one thinks of the nursing field as a profession that one practices locally. However, with doctors and nurses being able to use software such as Skype and Zoom to be able to examine patients far away from clinics, and the ever-changing composition of ethnicities locally and internationally, the medical field can have an international component. This is especially true at the U.S.-Mexico border, where it is typical that many Mexicans and American cross the border into the other country to see doctors and dentists.

I had a discussion with my niece about the value of learning a second language and learning as much as possible about other cultures. I talked to her about my decision to get involved in the international trade field and how I focused on perfecting my Spanish so I could live and work in Latin America. I used to carry an English-Spanish dictionary around with me everywhere, and every day I would make it a point to learn a few new Spanish words that I could incorporate into my vocabulary.

When I moved to Mexico City for work in the 1990s, I continued to carry that dictionary with me for the next three years, even when I was completely fluent in the modern Spanish dialect. I kept playing the game of learning new words every day and incorporating them into my speech and writing. Even though today I know my niece has instant access to online dictionaries through her cell phone, I gave her my old dictionary, which by that time had traveled around the world, as a symbol of my experiences and to try to ignite her hunger to learn new things.

Growing up in northern New Mexico, some people might say that I lived in an isolated area and did not receive a global experience. I look at it differently. In the rich multi-cultural region of that area, I developed a passion to learn about other cultures, which became the basis of my business life. Today, the internet and smart phones can educate and connect us to countries, cultures, and people all over the world. However, all of this technology can also isolate people if they don’t use it to learn and connect to the rest of the world. A person can find himself using a smartphone to simply socialize or shop.

We need to make our youth passionate about experiencing different cultures and people. Global trade is an everyday part of life, even if we don’t stop and think about it. The avocados in the guacamole we eat at football games most likely came from Mexico. The components in our autos probably originated in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Asia, and Europe. The cork in our wine bottles probably came from Portugal. And the clothes on our backs are likely to come from Asia. Many of us work in companies that have an international presence or trade with other countries.

We have to make our youth aware that the world is interconnected by trade, which improves our lives on a daily basis. Young people should be encouraged to learn about our world and to seek careers that expose them to different peoples and cultures around the globe. Even if they choose to make their careers in the U.S. and work in jobs that would typically not be considered “international,” they need to have an awareness of how companies and countries are linked. Today, having knowledge of our world has never been so critical in our ability to make good decisions and to avoid bad mistakes.

With technology increasing our connectivity, the age of isolationism is over. Our youth have the opportunity to soak up as much of the world as they can. We should not instill a sense of fear or avoidance in them when we talk about places outside of the U.S. Learning a hunger for other cultures and peoples will pay off for them in the form of successful businesses and careers. This in turn will keep our country competitive in the world, and will continue our prosperity into the future.

Even though she probably thinks I am a dinosaur for having started my career before the internet became a daily part of our lives, I hope she has the curiosity to thumb through my old, worn English-Spanish dictionary, with which I traveled with to the ends of the earth and studied it so much that I had to use heavy duty tape to secure the cover. I realize that it is easier for her to use Google on her cell phone to study words in other languages. However, I hope she looks at the dictionary as a symbol, of a hunger for knowledge outside our borders, if you will. And I hope that she realizes that this worn-out book was a close companion that accompanied her uncle to the edges of the globe, and helped make a boy raised in a small town in the Rockies more knowledgeable about the world outside our country.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at