Changing the Public Face of Languages

What do a Glaswegian interpreter, a grandmother called Bo and a UK government department all have in common? For one reason or another, all have helped language to make the headlines in the past few years.

Whether it is debates over government spend on court interpreting or funding for endangered languages or even a conference interpreter in a Bingo Hall, the press seem to love a good language story. Yet, sadly, there is not always much reflection on the impression that such stories might make on the public who, in one way or another keep language research and the language industry on their feet.

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?

None of the stories I mentioned actually have to send out this message. There is an interesting alternative. What if, instead of reinforcing the “expensive but funny” image, we worked on building the idea of languages and linguists as bridge builders?

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?

– Jonathan