I was invited to write an essay for a book about the future of multilingualism and cultural fluency. Instead, we did a Q&A style interview which will be condensed into a chapter for the book. Here’s the full interview below.

Please introduce yourself.

I’m Dave Margulius… I’m an entrepreneur who’s been involved in startups for 30 years; most recently, I started an education software company, Quizlet, which serves 50 million students per month.  Today I spend most of my time focused on the climate crisis, working to help move climate action faster and accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. 

Thinking about your previous or current roles, what do you think your multicultural or multilingual experiences have brought you?

I learned French growing up. And I did a lot of traveling in my 20s… hitchhiking specifically, across both Europe and the U.S. I think that broadened my view of people and the world and all the things you can do and the positive surprises that can happen if you choose a direction and are open to possibilities.

Why are multilingualism and cultural fluency relevant in the professional world?

The conventional wisdom is that understanding different languages and cultures gives you a leg up over people who don’t have that fluency. Business has been globalizing these past 30 years, and so language and culturally multi-lingual people who could facilitate that globalization have been in high demand.

But this trend is reversing; globalization’s rolling back as the world is roiled by dictators, tribalism and fundamentalism, the climate crisis and extreme weather, efforts to stop migration, and technology being used as a weapon more than a connector.

Global business is becoming more arms length, increasingly mediated by software and algorithms rather than people. And as software increasingly replaces what people used to do or uber-sizes the market for their work, those individuals get commoditized, and their roles compartmentalized.

So speaking multiple languages likely won’t differentiate you, just by itself, as much as it did in the past… it won’t get you a premium.

Are you talking about AI?

No, this is before AI. AI just accelerates this commoditization even more. So it begs the question – once AI and robots can do almost everything better than humans, will having a multilingual education matter?

Will it?

Maybe, if you use a broad definition of multilingual and multicultural. Most of us will never again have to order a beer or ask for directions in multiple languages. AIs will speak all languages perfectly and perform flawless real-time translation for you, right from your keyboard or earbuds – negating any transactional advantage multilingualism would have given you.

Moreover, AIs will know everything there is to know about every culture, having trained on all the billions of video and audio recordings, texts, and social media posts ever created by humans.

So how might multilingualism and cultural fluency matter?

One of the weird things about our modern world – largely thanks to technology – is that humans are increasingly siloed, living in their own small bubbles both physically and virtually, speaking mostly to people like themselves. Not just country by country, but discipline by discipline, profession by profession, ideology by ideology.

And machines are built to take advantage of this… segmenting people based on data, managing their behavior and emotions via algorithms, connecting people with others just like themselves, etc.

To be specific, the machines didn’t just decide to do this. They were programmed that way because their owners and creators realized that was the best way to make profits, or achieve desired political outcomes, or both.

Language and cultural ignorance just reinforces these silos and makes us all vulnerable to machine control, commoditization, manipulation, etc.

I know this sounds dark and extreme, but hey, I’m sitting here in a country where only half of us have a passport and even fewer (22%) speak a language other than English at home. Of haves and have-nots – and you can bet that many more of the haves have passports and speak multiple languages than the have-nots.

I think the way for humans to have power in the coming age of AI is to speak multiple languages and be part of multiple global networks… not siloed.

Great… what languages do you think, specifically?

All the obvious numerical-supremacy ones… English, Spanish, French, German, and Chinese. But actually, none of these would be in my top five.


Yeah, those alone are not going to be enough… if we want multilingualism to be powerful, we’ve got to expand the definition of languages. Most people speak very few of the world’s most important languages, and that needs to change, or computers will take over. 

I’m talking about the languages of finance, economics, science, weather, and politics. Programming languages. Religion and emotional languages. All the stuff it takes to understand the incredibly complex world we live in and be empowered to act in it. 

We need to make this our new definition of multilingualism… pick three from Column A (English, Spanish, Chinese…) and three from Column B (macroeconomics, biology, javascript), and then once you’re fluent in all of those (or close) you’ll be multilingual.

This seems like an awfully high hurdle for most people; maybe unrealistic?

That’s the thing. AI is going to raise the bar immensely for the next generation, automating an order of magnitude more people out of their jobs. We’re going to have to deal with that as a society, providing a much better safety net for way more people.

And it’s more than about money… work and jobs are also about self-esteem, a feeling of self-worth that you’re doing something important in the world, that there’s a reason for you to exist. And it will help a lot with this if you can get outside your bubble. If you’re adaptable and flexible, have some portable skills, some other skills in development you can build on, if you can always be learning. This is nothing new; it’s been true for decades. But it’s about to become a much more pressing need.

If you think about the power and potential of AI, humans will have precious few advantages over machines in this future.

AIs will master languages. But there are some human things they will struggle to master:

  • judgment, passion, self-awareness, resilience, a sense of humor
  • the confidence that it’s ok to be different and break rules
  • the ability to understand human emotions and relationships
  • the ability to build human organizations and networks

And for each of those four things, deeply understanding (and speaking) as many languages as possible, broadly defined, will be very helpful.

There will be great power in understanding human culture, as well as the big forces shaping our world today (physical/climate, military, technology, financial, communications, etc.).

So let’s keep learning languages… and broaden our view of what languages are important!

Do you think there is value in training multilingual and culturally competent individuals in the sense that, on top of offering broader opportunities, it would help with training global citizens who could mitigate global risks, such as global warming?

The main thing with global risks is getting people to understand them and to have the courage to take them on rather than hoping we can just ignore them or that they somehow won’t affect all of us. If multilingual and culturally competent individuals are more able to shift their mindset outside their own affluent bubbles and understand how the climate crisis is already impacting billions of people outside their bubble – like in the global south – and that we all share the same planet and no one is ‘protected,’ that would be a great outcome.

In your experience, what has been the added value of managing international teams?

I haven’t myself managed international teams. But the company I started has teams all over the world, for example, in Brazil, and what you get is different attitudes toward work which is a positive (e.g., in our case, more commitment and less attrition than comparable teams in the U.S.). If you’re just looking to lower labor costs with offshoring, that’s not a sustainable benefit in my opinion. But if you’re looking at having a workforce with diverse capabilities and perspectives that can help you innovate for a global market, that’s a big benefit. 

Do you have some examples of how your definition of multilingualism (speaking three languages and mastering three disciplines or areas of expertise – I find this great, by the way) can help in our globalized world?

There are so many examples. Say you’re developing a consumer product for a global market (and the most successful companies are all global these days). If you can understand user/customer feedback in three different languages, that’s hugely better than only understanding feedback in English… so much richer and more accurate. But it’s not sufficient… you need to also be able to speak the global languages of product development: of design, of technology, of distribution, and logistics. And the language of money because you need to finance and market that product. So that’s one example.

Or say you’re a scientist working on inventing a new vaccine or a battery chemistry or whatever. It’ll really help if you can talk to your global research colleagues in more than one language – people learn more and collaborate better when they can connect with the person more deeply, which languages let you do. But that’s not enough, obviously… you’ll also need to be fluent in the languages of chemistry, computational biology, and data science and maybe grant writing.

I could go on and on. But a final example that’s less rarified. Say you’re a young electrician who wants job security despite geopolitical instability and the potential need to move around quite a bit for family reasons or whatever. Electricity is a universal language, but it’s gotten much more complicated as it goes digital and software becomes more central. You can get licensed in multiple countries, assuming you speak the native languages of those countries, and you can master the country or region-specific electrical codes, which are kind of dialects of that technical language. But then you’re also going to also have to understand the languages of new electrification domains like solar, electric cars, management software, all the new stuff electricians have to handle and integrate in every country… the bar has been raised.

So… if you speak multiple languages and have also mastered multiple disciplines, it gives you a much broader scope of opportunity. It gives you portability and more options. It gives you the ability to compete and live life more on your own terms than on someone else’s, a way out of the trap of being commoditized by machines. Something really worth aiming for if you can do it!

Thanks for those thoughts. Now a couple of final questions. Who inspired you on your global journey?

All four of my grandparents came to America on a boat. In the bottom of the boat – steerage, not a great place to be. But between them, they spoke lots of languages… English, French, Russian, Romanian, German, Yiddish, and maybe a little Polish. And they all valued education and prioritized it. My dad went to MIT and started a small tech business, for which he traveled and did business all over the world… Japan, South America, the USSR, Europe, and Mexico. And he loved to (and still loves to) talk about those places and his experiences there. He had (and still has) a very big and optimistic view of the world, of both technology and people.

If you could work and live anywhere else in the world, where would it be?

Copenhagen! (for the bike and pedestrian culture) Milan! Lisbon, London (my wife’s from there), Dublin, New York City. Savannah, Georgia, and Asheville, North Carolina. Burlington, Vermont (right near Montreal). There are 50 places I’d love to live. And, of course, Berkeley and the Bay Area, where I do live now, is not bad.

One piece of advice to (future) multilingual and culturally fluent individuals?

Get good at asking questions, listening, and interpreting. Not just to what people say but what they’re really saying. People will tell you everything about themselves, everything you need to know, if you just let them talk, ask the right questions, and listen.

Also, try to listen to what the world is telling you. If things don’t go how you expected or wanted, or if you get rejected or set back, it may just be the world telling you something. It may be an opportunity if you can hear it.

Understand technology as much as you can. Understand the incredibly complex and synthetic world of money as much as you can. Understand human behavior and emotions as much as you can. Understand greenhouse gas emissions and the climate crisis, the energy transition, its impact on you, and your potential to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. 

Be part of building stuff, creating things, making things… that can be so fun and rewarding, and it’s what the world needs.

Finally, whatever you’re doing, be sure to prioritize living life along the way.

And breathe!