Time Magazine
April 13, 1992

The State of Many Tongues

By SALLY B. DONNELLY, Salt Lake City
Transcribed by Benjawan Kanyaphan

If the builders of the legendary Tower of Babel had hired a work crew from Utah, the massive structure might actually have been completed instead of collapsing in the confusion of the workers' diverse languages. The linguistically savvy Utahans could have worked like bees in a hive. Or at least that is the boast among modern-day locals, who are using their language skills to build the economy of their home state.

Sparsely populated, landlocked and laced with deserts, mountains and rugged wilderness regions typical of the American West, Utah is an unlikely place to find people who collectively speak 90% of the world's written languages. "I can make one phone call and get a foreign language speaker in 30 minutes. That's pretty impressive for a state of 2 million, says Fred Ball, head of the local Chamber of Commerce, who frequently is host to foreign executives. Per capita, Utah is the most linguistically diverse region of the U.S.--a feature the state is exploiting to attract foreign businesses and make tourists feel more welcome. The world-class ski resorts at Park City and Deer Valley reflect the clientele by providing signs in both English and Japanese, and the state is hawking its linguistic skills as part of its campaign to be host of the Winter Olympics in 2002.

Much of the multilingual talent is a dividend from the missionary work performed by the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For decades the church has sent thousands of young men (and a few women) each year on missions to win converts around the world. They spend at least two years in an assigned region, preaching the Mormon message and living side by side with locals. With more than 8 million members worldwide, the church has 44,500 missionaries serving in 95 countries and 26 territories.

Each of those who serve first attend the Missionary Training Center in Provo, which can handle 3,000 students at a time. Part of their studies includes intensive language training for several hours a day, seven days a week. From Armenian to Vietnamese--including such low-demand tongues as Estonian, Tahitian and Icelandic--38 different languages are taught at the center, usually by former missionaries or foreign students from nearby universities. At Mormon-backed Brigham Young University, more than 60% of the 28,000 students acquire extensive foreign-language experience.

Utah's linguistic richness has prompted several international companies to open divisions in the state. Atlanta-based Delta Air lines, which recently expanded service to 35 cities in Europe and Asia, has set up an international reservations center in Salt Lake City. Agents can take bookings in 13 foreign languages, including Hindi and Swedish. Several years ago, American Express decided to situate its worldwide traveler's check service center in Salt Lake City. On the outside, the four-story glass and concrete structure looks like any other modern office building, but inside the atmosphere is more like the Disneyland ride It's a Small world. More than half the 1,600 employees are bilingual; all told, they speak 118 languages. "As any traveler knows, it can be frustrating to deal with a complicated problem if you don't speak the language. We find customers are relieved to find that someone on the other end of the line can understand," says Ronna Draper, an operator and Spanish-language student at the University of Utah.

Homegrown firms have discovered that the local talent pool offers more than enough depth to build global businesses. ALPNET, a translation company B.Y.U. started as a research project in 1980, has developed into a $26 million business with 250 employees in 22 offices around the globe. Because Salt Lake City has become a high-tech center as well, computer-aided translation comes naturally to many local workers. "It is a unique combination: a linguistically and culturally conscious society that is also computer literate," says ALPNET president Thomas Seal. Among the company's clients: Apple Computer, British Petroleum, NATO and Siemens. The U.S. Army recently called on ALPNET to translate 32,000 pages of information on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Arabic for the Saudi military.

Officials form the state's Economic Development Corporation, which has branches from Brussels to Tokyo, like to point out that 60% of all public high school students in Utah study a foreign language. And the state has done well by vigorously pushing its language skills as an attraction to potential foreign-transplant factories and offices.

Last year, for example, the Taiwan based computer firm Compaq Manufacturing chose Utah for its first overseas plant. Compaq's executives were lured by Utah residents who not only spoke Mandarin but also understood the customs and culture of a Taiwanese company--further proof that, in an increasingly global economy, the multilingual abilities of Utahans may speak louder than words.

* Bold emphasis added by transcriber.