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Lingual diversity

Abundance of language skills gives Utah a competitive edge

Last updated 11/25/1998, 12:25 p.m. MT

By Jason Swensen
Deseret News staff writer

Utah abroad       The Beehive State will likely never find itself in a "Most Diversified U.S. Places" top 10 list.
      Landlocked, lily white and predominantly Mormon, Utah remains a pretty homogenous state.
      But appearances are indeed deceiving.
      Men and women living throughout the state have picked up varying levels of proficiency in foreign tongues ranging from Guarani to Swahili while serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
      Those skills often diminish as they settle into traditional, homegrown Utah careers. But some returned Utah missionaries have built careers around their language skills.
      Utah's "bilingual" population can't match large, diverse cities like San Francisco or Miami, where entire neighborhoods speak English as a second language.

Japan celebrity Kent Derricott, of Bountiful, poses with autograph seekers in Nagano.

Photo by Kristan Jacobsen, Deseret News
      "But you can walk into a store in Panguitch and there's a chance someone there can speak Russian," said Dan Hulzinger, director of the Kennedy Center for International Studies at Brigham Young University. You won't find those odds in any other Panguitch-like town in, say, Nebraska or South Dakota.
      Indeed, Utah's diversity of language skills, relative to its environment, can't be found in any other state, said Dan Mabey, director of Utah's International Business Development Office.
      "You may find states bordering Canada or Mexico with a higher number of people speaking a foreign language, but it's going to be one language like French or Spanish," Mabey said.
      More than 50 languages are being taught in Utah colleges, he added.
      And talks by speakers at the LDS Church's biannual General Conference on Temple Square are simultaneously translated into 35 foreign tongues ranging from Bulgarian to Vietnamese.
      So what does this mean beyond linguistic bragging rights?
      In the international market, Mabey said, "it gives us a competitive edge."
      Mabey recalls representing Utah in a U.S./Japan trade conference a few years ago. After listening to several states make presentations in English to Japanese executives, Mabey offered his in Japanese.
      "It had everyone's attention," he said.
      Bountiful resident Kent Derricott learned Japanese serving an LDS mission. His language skills and insight into Asian culture have gleaned him national attention as a Japanese television personality.
      Derricott can visit a Salt Lake grocery store unnoticed but can't take his kids to Disneyland in Tokyo without a security team to foil autograph hounds.
      "And I originally wanted to go on a mission to England," said Derricott, chuckling.
      He's limited some of his Japanese television work, but Derricott continues to consult with American companies hoping to establish or improve relationships with Japanese businesses. He also endorses various Japanese products.
      Without the mission experience, "I'd probably be working construction right now," Derricott said.
      Obviously, Derricott's evolution from 19-year-old Utah LDS missionary to Japanese celebrity is atypical — but thousands of Utahns are enlisting their LDS mission/foreign language skills to help make a living.
      American companies with international ties are well-acquainted with Utah, Mabey said.
      For a period, telemarketing companies were coming to Utah primarily because of the state's diverse language pool. One of the military's largest translation groups is also based in Utah, employing several local returned missionaries.
      Other Utah-based companies, like Nu Skin International Inc. and American Express, continue to hire customer-service reps with foreign language skills developed on LDS missions.
      "We could still conduct our business Utah, but it would be more of a challenge" finding the state's language resources," said Nu Skin spokeswoman Tonya Fischio.
      Returned LDS missionaries and BYU language students make up a large portion of an employee pool that uses 25 languages to conduct international business, Fischio added.
      Their value goes beyond language aptitude — generally limited to conversational levels used while proselyting.
      "Cultural sensitivity is a byproduct of Utahns who lived abroad for the mission experience," said Donald Brown, director of Asian sales at Salt Lake's Evans & Sutherland.
      Brown, who served a mission in Taiwan, said most of Evans & Sutherland's extensive international business is conducted in the "international language of business" — English. But employees who have lived in a client's country are empowered with a cultural awareness that goes beyond language aptitude.
      In fact, few Utah returned missionaries could truly be called "bilingual," Hulzinger said.
      For example, ALPNET Inc., a worldwide software translation and localization service company with offices in Salt Lake City and Provo, won't use Utahns who learned a second language on a mission for their translation tasks.
      "For the type of translation services we provide, we can really only use native speakers," said Andrew Wilson, director of ALPNET's U.S. operations.
      A cache of locals who speak a foreign language is also invaluable in the LDS Church's Utah-based curriculum department, which oversees translations. The church now publishes material in more than 170 languages, said church spokesman Dale Bills.
      Mabey agrees the state's high number of people who speak a diverse pool of languages does not, by itself, ensure international attention, but it does put the state at a marketable advantage over other states.
      It's an advantage that has already helped Salt Lake City win the 2002 Winter Games over multi-lingual cities like Quebec, Canada; Sion, Switzerland; and Ostersund, Sweden.
      During the bid, members of the International Olympic Committee visiting Utah were often startled to be greeted in their native tongues. The official languages of the IOC are French and English.
      "I understand it was unbelievably impressive," said Shelley Thomas, who joined the Salt Lake Organizing Committee as vice president of public communications after the bid was awarded.
      Thomas said the state's language skills will be a big plus during the Games, too. Officially, organizers need to provide translators for French, Spanish, German, Arabic and Russian.
      But many more languages will be heard in Utah during the Olympics.
      "As the streets of Salt Lake City become a festival during the Games," she said, "there will be many people who will be astonished to know they can converse with Utahns in their native languages."

Deseret News staff writer Lisa Riley Roche contributed to this report.