I’m a Clevelander by adoption; I’m entering my 5th year as a resident in the area (west side of Cleveland proper) but I can’t yet feel the urban atmosphere as more than mere concrete bigness and hollowed-out glory that doesn’t seem to reach out and touch the world.
Cleveland and surrounding cities have many bright spots: worldclass museums and orchestras, as well as the famed Cleveland International Film Festival, now in its 39th anniversary. Several multinational companies, from Sherwin Williams to Lubrizol and Hyland Software, call the Greater Cleveland their home.
According to US Census 2010 figures, 12.1% of the population age 5 and older speaks a foreign language. Of that slice, 7.1% of adults 18 and older speak Spanish, 0.6% speak Arabic, 0.5% speak Chinese. Also, 0.9% speak a Slavic language (Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Ukranian and Russian). But Cleveland is not the only epicenter of foreign languages in Ohio. In recent years, the city of Dayton, OH, has become the home of 2,500 Aishka Turks, who speak Turkish.
By most accounts, Cleveland is a multicultural hub, but you wouldn’t see it by reading the local newspapers or websites —unless you were specifically looking for a foreign-language website, that is. But Cleveland has a ways to go before being considered a truly dynamic cosmopolitan city.
Take exports, for example. Aside from some of the companies I just mentioned, I didn’t know about any local exporters until recently through an article published in Crain’s Cleveland Business (found here) in last June. The article, titled Companies have a world of options to enter export game, mentions several useful programs to help local companies export products, but fail to say anything about using foreign languages. Countries may have ports of call where you send your merchandise, and your company (if it is an exporter) may know all the forms to fill out to comply with the regulations of a foreign country, but a language is your portal to a foreign culture, which can come in handy to understand business transactions and practices in that faraway destination. Since you put so much stock on exporting and gaining new customers, thus improving your bottom line, shouldn’t you be paying attention to their language as a factor that can influence your earnings favorably?
Another area of potential robust growth is real estate. You would think that the saying “location, location, location” is only relevant to local clients or buyers, right? Not quite. In a July 18, 2014 article in the Mansion supplement of The Wall Street Journal, a foreign language can give real estate agents a competitive edge. For example, Nadia Rahmani, an agent with Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty in Chicago, is fluent in three foreign languages —French, Arabic and Spanish. In her estimate, 40% of her buyers in Chicago are international: “Even though they’re fluent in English, they’re more comfortable speaking in their native tongue.”
A similar circumstance is happening here, in the shadows: a real estate agent I know, Luba Kohut, speaks Ukranian. She told me that her Ukrainian has come in handy with some clients. But I wonder: where are the Ukrainian real estate brochures or websites? Are you listening, Howard Hanna? Imagine for a moment if real estate companies could market units in foreign languages, thus attracting the attention of foreign investors! Just look at what Dayton did.
Health care centers in America attract thousands of patients from all over the world. In our metro region, hospitals like Cleveland Clinic offer language assistance services by way of foreign language interpreters for international patients. However, how is a Brazilian patient supposed to know that she’s entitled to request a no-cost Portuguese interpreter? Even the otherwise informational page is —you guessed it— in English!
To recapitulate, Cleveland businesses, big and small, could learn a great deal about showing an international, cosmopolitan face to the world and to every visitor. A very good example is Lubrizol. If you go to the Lubrizol’s website, you are welcome by this splashscreen:
Small businesses could do something similar, but COSE, the Council of Smaller Enterprises of which I was a member for close to 2 years, has no initiatives in that regard. Cleveland businesses need to adjust their attitude from a local mindset to a more worldwide one. Use foreign languages not just to network and find clients but also to show your sense of hospitality and humanism, which goes beyond language and cultural differences. And this attitude should not be an one-off event. I invite you to widen your vision to years, not just months, down the road. You don’t have to shed your unique city identity when you embrace a cosmopolitan attitude. If you agree, let your voice be heard at your local chamber of commerce or similar association.
But you could take direct action and put yourself on the map whenever there are international events in our city. Take the 2016 Republican National Convention that will attract thousands of press representatives from all over the world. If you play your language cards right, they might as well become your best brand ambassadors back to their home countries.
Cleveland and its metro area have some enviable advantages compared to other metro areas in the country, including reasonable property taxes, simplified ways to establish a corporation, low housing costs, lots of green spaces and the four seasons (even if we get snowed in once in a while). Don’t keep it to yourself, say it in a foreign language.