Keep Changing the Public Face of Languages

If some of today’s post seems familiar, it should be! Given the continuing saga of UK court interpreting, dropping numbers of students doing languages and the rise and rise of machine translation apps, it is just as important to shape people’s perceptions of languages as it was just over a year ago when Changing the Public Face of Languages was first published. In this post, we will review a few of the paragraphs from that post and see how we are getting on.

“It seems to me that when languages get into the press, it is for one of two reasons. The first is money. When language services seem to cost a lot of money or linguists are asking for money for some project or department, journalists start writing. Within a few sentences the story comes to the crux: in this time of belt-tightening, why should languages not experience the same funding cuts as everyone else? What makes languages so useful, so interesting and so important that they need the same funding they already get, if not more?

The other stories centre on even simpler concerns: language differences are funny. It seems funny to think that English-speakers might struggle with Glaswegian, which is, of course, a dialect of English. It’s funny to gawk at translation errors. It’s funny to talk about a recent cultural faux pas.

Is this really the impression people will have of languages: expensive but funny?”

Sadly, not much has changed on either count. The press impression of languages is still dominated by the same hackneyed arguments that have been brought up since time immemorial. However, what might be shifting is the view that speaking more than one language is not really a skill.

When “Changing the Public Face of Languages” was first written, there was very little indication that the public really valued languages and linguists. Now, with public discussion of the Ministry of Justice interpreting contract, clear representation of the views of interpreters and precious favourable headlines, we might be making headway.

At last, people seem to be realising that cutting interpreter pay and conditions is not a quick route to greater efficiency. Slowly, the people who work with interpreters are beginning to ask why such a vital service has been so attacked. The word “value” is not entering into the debate.

All this is a lesson for language professionals. If we want to increase the number of language learners and if we want to increase the status of the language professions, we need to start talking about the value that we add. We need to show that we actually add something to society that all can benefit from. In the end, it all comes down to exactly the same argument that ended that post over a year ago.

“If a company wants to crack a new market, they need linguists to build bridges to their new customers. If a government wants to increase the integration of new arrivals, it will need linguists to build bridges to its new residents. In short, if any two groups of people who do not share a common language wish to communicate, they will need linguists.

Put in those terms, it is far easier to justify the money spent on language research, training and, yes, even translation and interpreting. Rather than money down a very expensive drain, the same cash becomes investment in community cohesion and economic growth. In these troubled times, isn’t that what everyone is after anyway?”