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Trilingualism Will Translate Into Greater Employability, Experts Say


Cecilia Aguillon is still in graduate school, but she's already a hot property in the job market. Several months ago she went to an internship fair to line up some summer work. Instead, she walked away with three offers for permanent jobs.

What's her secret? Aguillon, 30, speaks English, Spanish and Japanese and wants to work for a company that plies its trade on both sides of the Pacific Rim.

Right now, however, her first priority is to finish her master's degree at UC San Diego's Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. She's one of a number of students on campus specializing in Asian as well as Latin American languages, trade and business.

"I can see how the triangle is being connected," says Aguillon, who was born in El Salvador, has traveled widely in Mexico and Japan and now makes her home in California. "Having a knowledge of three cultures is valuable for me."

Career experts say young people such as Aguillon will be able to write their own ticket in the 21st-century job market.

"People who are trilingual, who speak English plus an Asian and a Latin language, are in really high demand," says Stephanie Chick, who is assistant director of career services for UCSD's program and who meets regularly with corporations looking to hire graduates of the school.

"Businesses want five to seven years' technical expertise plus trilingual" skills, she says.

The need for trilingual business people reflects the reality of today's global economy. Asian investments in Latin America and Mexico are booming. The North American Free Trade Agreement has created a market from the Yukon to Yucatan, and many of the maquiladora border factories in Tijuana are run by Japanese, Chinese and Korean corporations.

Those companies need well-trained employees who can get by not only in three languages but also in three cultures. One of Aguillon's job offers, in fact, came from a Japanese company that runs a maquiladora in Tijuana. Another came from a U.S. consulting firm in Los Angeles that has Japanese and Latino clients.

Multicultural immigrant families are tapping into this market. Consider Afonso Chi, a young Korean Brazilian whose family owns a clothing company called Forom Fashion in the Garment District of Los Angeles. Chi, whose family emigrated from Brazil in 1989, speaks four languages and uses each of them in his daily business transactions.

"It's very valuable. I can relate to everyone," Chi says. "I speak English with Americans, Spanish to our Mexican factory workers, Korean to the jobbers and clothing store owners, and Portuguese to people from Brazil who come here to buy."

Southern California is ideally situated in terms of geography, cultures, workers and consumers to straddle both sides of the Pacific Rim, experts say. Indeed, many economists say the rim must be considered one integrated economy.

NAFTA creates an economic union in which Asian exporters and investors can profit handsomely from Mexican connections.

All told, Asian companies will invest $1.18 billion in Mexico this year. Nissan of Japan alone will pump $80 million into its Mexican facilities to take advantage of the cheaper labor in that country. Nissan also plans to increase shipments of completed cars to the United States.

The new dynamics create a need for trilingual employees.

"The highest demand for any manufacturing business here is someone who could speak Spanish as well as Japanese and English; I definitely recommend it for anybody who wants to work in international trade," says Ryozo Arai, president of Allied Holdings, a Japanese-owned firm based in Torrance that has seven companies.

One of those companies is Aragon Engineering, which makes front-wheel-drive shafts for cars and employs 100 Latino workers. At the Rancho Dominguez factory near Carson, the managers, most of whom are Japanese, communicate to their workers in broken Spanish or English, but Arai says he wishes he had some trilingual managers on hand.

"We are emphasizing that our employees take a Spanish course, but it's not easy," Arai says with a sigh. "It's almost impossible to find a Japanese person who speaks English and Spanish."

On factory tours, Arai reaches back into his memory to recall the two years of Spanish he studied during college in Japan.

"It helps," Arai says. "They're pretty surprised when I respond to them in Spanish."

Freelance writer Denise Hamilton can be reached via e-mail at

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