There's a joke among linguists: If you speak two languages, you're bilingual. If you speak one, you're American.
The joke isn't funny, though, at a time when the number of Chinese with familiarity in English matches the entire population of the United States, and when officials warn that America's "national language gap" is a major competitiveness handicap because the winners of global trade are those who can penetrate foreign markets.
The nation's predicament triggered a new form of innovation at ManpowerGroup Inc., spawning an entirely new division that has nothing to do with Manpower's mainstay business of temp workers and recruitment. The Milwaukee-based multinational, which has offered language translations for years as a non-strategic sideline service, just launched a stand-alone translation subsidiary that spans the globe.
And it's big business. Specializing in more than 150 languages, the new division encompasses the raft of cultural sensitivities and bridge-building that go with translations, including brand localization services and content management that are useful to avoid the faux pas and unintended marketing embarrassments created by literal word-for-word translations from one language into another.
"Here in America, we are so English-centric that we think everything needs to occur in English," said Norman Newton, who launched the new business unit, ManpowerGroup Solutions Language Services. "In the rest of the world, that's not the case. It's a multilinguistic world."
Merely by reorganizing its patchwork of disparate translation and localization services, which previously lacked strategic importance within the company, Manpower created a new, $105 million-a-year business that automatically joins the world's top 10 translation services, Mr. Newton said.
Mr. Newton expects the new business to grow merely by piggybacking on the natural rate of growth of global trade. The World Trade Organization, which represents 159 member states, projects a 120 percent increase in international trade by 2020.
The new business is not meant merely to address America's language deficit, even if that's one of the most obvious business opportunities. It's targeted at global entrepreneurs anywhere who want to navigate new markets. If a South African entrepreneur wants new Internet portals in Poland and China, Manpower will guide the project in ways that fit into the local cultures as if they were done by indigenous entrepreneurs.
The idea is to create "a culturally relevant, local voice," Mr. Newton said.
"Everyone has heard the horror stories of big U.S. companies that took their marketing message to other counties and translated the message without taking into consideration cultural nuances of the target market, resulting in a message that completely missed the mark, missed the intent of the message."
Mr. Newton declined to name specific examples, in part because Manpower's staffing services have worked with many of those multinationals at one time or another. But one of the best-known examples includes General Motors' efforts to sell the Chevrolet Nova in Latin America, unaware that "no va" means "it doesn't go." A Dublin distiller tried to market its "Irish Mist" whiskey in Germany, only to endure jokes because "mist" in German means "manure," when translated politely.
When economists warn about the skills necessary for competitiveness, they often focus on math, science and engineering to the exclusion of languages.
"The United States is a long way from being the multilingual society that so many of our economic competitors are," warns U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in his speeches.
Mr. Duncan scorns the complacent view that English is a one-size-fits-all global language of commerce. "For too long, Americans have relied on other countries to speak our language. But we won't be able to do that in the increasingly complex and interconnected world."
Just 18 percent of Americans report speaking a language other than English, which is a third of the European average, Mr. Duncan said.
"Our national language gap," Mr. Duncan said, amounts to a "high-stakes issue."