Back to the future

2011 was a big year for British Sign Language at Heriot-Watt University. 2012 already looks set to be even more significant. What do you think our priorities should be? Here’s a whirlwind review of last year to remind you of what we’ll be building upon.

  1.     January: Students from the international EUMASLI programme , designed and delivered by Heriot-Watt with HUMAK, Finland and U. Magdeburg-Stendal, Germany, present the early fruits of their Master’s degree research at a special workshop in Amsterdam.
  2.  February: Filming is completed on our ground-breaking ESRC BSL Corpus project (with partners including UCL and U. Bristol).
  3.  March: The Medisigns project team – drawing upon research at Heriot-Watt, Trinity College Dublin and U. Stockholm to design new approaches to healthcare interpreting for Deaf people – meet in Dublin for the project’s first intensive workshop.
  4.  April: Gary Quinn presents Heriot-Watt’s work-in-progress on BSL interaction (with U. Leeds and U. York St. John) at the 2nd i-Mean conference.
  5.  May: The innovative Deaf Managers event harnesses all the strengths of Heriot-Watt’s School of Management & Languages in a unique way.
  6.  June: The latest group of Deaf students graduate from the Graduate Diploma in Training of BSL Teachers (alongside Honorary graduate Robert McCrum, Associate Editor of the Observer). Proud!
  7.  July: Signed Language Interpreting: Preparation, Practice and Performance, co-edited by Heriot-Watt’s Dr Svenja Wurm, is presented for publication by St Jerome.
  8.    August: A warm welcome awaits for Robyn Dean, joining the Heriot-Watt BSL group from Rochester, NY.
  9.    September: Elaine Farrow’s work to support public engagement with BSL research receives prize-winning acknowledgment.
  10.     October: Scottish Funding Council confirms that it will grant £744,000 to enable Heriot-Watt to launch 4-year, full-time BSL degrees from autumn 2012 and the Department launches the LifeinLINCS blog.
  11.     November: Heriot-Watt’s BSL:UPTAKE project convenes its latest (and biggest yet!) ‘knowledge exchange’ event in Edinburgh.
  12.    December: Heriot-Watt’s Gary Quinn, in partnership with Mark McQueen (a graduate of our own ‘BSL ‘training of trainers’ course), devises and presents the highly original ‘Dream or Not?’ event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

"Practice in a real setting": Heriot-Watt students improve their skills in the Scottish Parliament

For three Thursdays in a row, Heriot-Watt MSc students from the Translation and Conference Interpreting course have had a unique chance to hone their skills in a professional booth at the Scottish Parliament.

With the help and support of Roberta Bianchini, Office Manager to Colin Keir MSP and a graduate from the M.A. in Translation and Interpreting herself, a scheme was put in place in cooperation with the Scottish Parliament, enabling students to test their skills from real live parliamentary discussions, similar to what professional interpreters tackle on a daily basis in any multilingual organisation. The microphones remained switched off, as is the usual practice for dummy booth sessions, and the students’ performance was monitored by members of staff who accompanied them and sat with them in the booth.

Thanks to the excellent facilities, a number of students were able to work together in the professional interpreting booth, practicing various techniques: simultaneous interpreting into French, Spanish, German, Arabic and Chinese, from the live speeches happening below, in the debating chamber, but also chuchotage (also called “whispered interpreting”) into English.

Student feed-back was very positive and enthusiastic. One of the students said: “It was a great hands-on experience! It was really interesting to discover a real professional setting and working-space, and also to see how the parliamentary debates work”.

On top of giving students valuable hands on experience, the aim of this session was to help students become more aware of what they need to focus on at this stage of the learning process. The message seems to have sunk in. As one student said “it allowed us all to figure out in more detail where our weaknesses lie and I know that we will all be working hard in the weeks to come to find solutions to them”. Each student left the Parliament with a clearer idea as to the progress they still need to make to be fully ready for the professional world, and most importantly, how they could use class materials and live resources like the broadcast of Holyrood sessions to perfect their technique.

This session form part of the extra events arranged by Heriot-Watt in order to help students become ready for the demands of the job market. In March, many of these students will be interpreting for real at our Multilingual Debate (editor’s note: more info available shortly).

Author: Fanny Chouc

To See Ourselves as Others See Us

On Burns day (25th January) Heriot-Watt had a visit from Dr Julie Boéri of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona for her lecture on the Sociology of Translation and Interpreting. Dr Boéri took us on a journey from the Nuremberg War Trials to World Social Fora to explore just how interpreters see themselves and their profession.

Her main objective was to explore whether the world of professional interpreting, with its fixed standards and inherited traditions was in opposition to the world of activism, with its disregard for rules and attempts to build something different. In court interpreting, as we discussed last week, these worlds sometimes meet. Professional and social concerns can and do merge into one when the profession seems to be threatened.

In conference interpreting, on the other hand, long-term strategies for increasing the status of interpreters, led by AIIC (the International Association of Conference Interpreters), have tended to emphasise how interpreters need to build up a repertoire of complex skills. It wouldn’t take long for them to say that the only place to obtain these skills was in a university that had AIIC-approved experts doing the teaching. The profession was then built on the model of people gaining expertise by learning from experts.

As ever, things aren’t quite as simple as they might seem. Apparently, there are many professionals who choose to work for BABELS, an activist organisation offering volunteer interpreting, and many other professionals who choose to donate some of their time to NGOs. This means that volunteer interpreting is not necessarily worse than paid interpreting and neither does paid interpreting have to mean that the interpreter is not committed to what they are saying.

Perhaps the real problem then isn’t the barrier between paid and volunteer interpreting but between “professional” (i.e. neutral) interpreting and “activist” interpreting. Even here, I am sure readers will be able to think of examples that see the two merged together. What would we call it if a committed environmentalist was paid to interpret for a large ecological NGO? Would they see their role as the neutral professional or would they be an activist, simply because they support their client when they are outside the booth? Is it even reasonable to say that interpreters can ever be truly neutral? Don’t all interpreters enter the booth with pre-conceived ideas and preferences that will always appear somehow in their output?

How do you see yourself? Are you an activist translator or interpreter? Do you think language professionals should always be neutral? Do you know or care how your clients see your role? As always, we look forward to reading your comments.

Jonathan Downie

Tongue-tied UK? Speak for yourself

Two eminent figures have recently issued a familiar challenge to UK plc. Will Hutton writes powerfully in the Guardian: “The crisis in our foreign language studies is part of something much larger and why the coalition government’s rhetoric and programme are so very, very misguided. There is a poverty of vision about what Britain needs to be – apart from a country that balances its public finances and says boo to foreigners.”

And in the current Times Higher Education magazine, Sir  Adam Roberts, as befits his position, is keen to reinforce the value of studying the humanities (including languages) and social sciences: “In a fast-changing world, the flexible skills offered by rigorous study in the humanities and social sciences are of enormous value, and this will be understood in time”. Amen to that.

Why does they feel the need to comment? Well, the number of UK university applicants is down by 7.4 per cent relative to this time last year. This, Roberts states, “will reinforce certain worries about the new funding regime – especially as they affect the teaching of languages”. In particular, applications to European language courses are down by 11.2 per cent and those to non-European languages are down by 21.5 per cent: both decreases are well above the average decline across all subjects.
Here we go again, eh? Why is that, even when the arguments are articulated in every language known to humankind, in the UK the message does not seem to register that it is massively in the national interest to ensure the sustainable, high-quality linguistic capability of our population (and especially our workforce)?

If the splendidly isolationist English-is-enough position beloved of many Britons were ever plausible, it is becoming less so by the day. Why? Because linguistic power goes hand-in-hand with economic strength. Hutton has it exactly right: the waning dominance of Europe and North America in the global marketplace will, as night follows day, be associated with a realignment of linguistic pre-eminence.

Any sociolinguist worth their salt can tell you this. What happened to Cornish? The money moved to the capital cities and those who wanted to earn it needed to adapt to metropolitan language practices. So it will be on the global scale: for Cornish, read English; for London, read China.

When did we become so blinkered about the needs of the economy – “look after the STEM subjects, they’ll drive regeneration” is a message we hear like a broken record – and so complacent about language? Even the much-derided Research Excellence Framework in the UK’s universities recognises that 20% of the value of research is associated with its impact – and how will you generate impact without communicating the benefits of your work to purchasers in a language they understand?

What’s more, if we need new ways to stimulate the global economy (and we plainly do), and if there is any relationship between language and thought (and there plainly is), then understanding how different languages are used in and for the process of thinking must be utterly vital to planning for the world ahead.

It’s a big world and we need to talk with it and think with it. Humans learn languages best in their youth. There’s more to life (and to business) than STEM. No-one should need to spell out what we have to do: it speaks for itself.

Author: Graham Turner

New Speakers of Minority Languages: A Dialogue

Heriot-Watt University and Edinburgh University are pleased to announce this one and a half day event to bring together scholars working on new speakers of minority languages in different parts of the world where traditional communities of speakers are being eroded.

In these contexts, new speakers often emerge as a result of revitalization efforts and more favourable language policies, prompting some individuals to become speakers of the minority language and to invest in its provision for the next generation.

‘New speakers’ are defined here as individuals who use the language of a particular minority linguistic community in everyday life but are not native speakers.

This profile of speaker has always existed in the context of immigration and colonization. It continues to exist in a contemporary context of the globalized new economy, where world languages, most notably English, are acquired by non-native speakers.

New speakers of indigenous minority languages are also emerging in situations where traditional linguistic practices are changing and new ones appearing. In many parts of the world, traditional communities of minority language speakers are being eroded as a consequence of increased urbanization and economic modernization.

At the same time, new speakers are emerging as a result of revitalization efforts and more favourable language policies, prompting some individuals to become speakers of the minority language and to invest in its provision for the next generation.

The linguistic varieties being used by new speakers can often be significantly removed from the norm associated with traditional native speakers.

Different factors may be at play here: new standardized forms may be used in educational and other formal contexts, new terminology may be developed to make the language functional in new domains, and new speakers, language may show the influence of their first language (typically the dominant state language) in terms of syntax and pronunciation.

New speakers often tend to be concentrated in urban areas that may be very different in social and socio-economic terms from the traditional rural communities.

Because of underlying linguistic, sociolinguistic, socioeconomic, socio-geographical and very often ideological differences between native and new speakers, these groups can sometimes perceive themselves as being socially and linguistically incompatible.

This may lead to tensions between different minority language speakers which can sometimes have a negative effect on the process of linguistic revitalization.

Venue: Celtic and Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh

Friday 30 – Saturday 31 March 2012

Confirmed Keynote Speakers:

  • Professor Alexandra Jaffe
  • Professor Alan Davies

Registration fee: £50 (Concessions: £35)

We welcome abstracts of not more than 300 words in length, by no later than 31 January 2012.
Abstracts should include the presenter’s name and institutional affiliation, if any, a very brief biography (not more than a further 100 words), and a contact email address. It is expected that information on acceptance of proposals will be communicated by 15 February.
Please email your abstracts to Bernadette O.Rourke.

Abstracts will be reviewed anonymously by our Scientific Committee and will be evaluated in terms of their relevance to the theme of the Symposium.
Dr Bernadette O.Rourke (Heriot-Watt University), Dr Wilson McLeod (University of Edinburgh)
Scientific Committee:
Dr Ane Ortega Etcheverry (Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao) Professor Graham Turner, (Heriot-Watt University) Dr Joan Pujolar (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) Professor Alan Davies (University of Edinburgh) Dr Tadhg O hIfearnain (University of Limerick) Dr Fernando Ramallo (Universidade de Vigo) Professor Estibaliz-Amorrortu Gomez (Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao) Dr John Walsh (National University of Ireland, Galway) Dr Michael Hornsby (John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland) Dr Alasdair MacCaluim (Gaelic Officer, Scottish Parliament) Professor Rob Dunbar (Sabhal Mor Ostaig, University of Highlands and Islands)

Registration details will follow shortly.

Bernie O’Rourke

Email – B.M.A.O’

Academia – Bernadette O’Rourke

Twitter – @BernORourke