Language skills and the need for them

The Guardian has lately been running pieces on the subject of language studies and language learning both outside and inside the university structure. The UK has a particular problem in this respect; the number of universities offering language courses is dropping more or less off a cliff; the UK government removed the need for a language at GSCE levels a few years ago. There is currently a shortage of English translators within the European Union structures and for the most part, those that they hire have fewer languages than other languages. The EU is running translation and interpreting competitions at the moment; out of more than 120 applicants for interpreting last year, just 3 have made the final stage of the competition Out of 1330 applications for translation, 60 have made the final round.

I have an interest in discussions of this nature because my original degree was in French and German, and I’ve trained as both a translator and an interpreter. I’ve worked as both in the past although more as a translator than as an interpreter.  I have worked in information technology for most of the past 15 years however, and I’m currently studying for a Masters in Computer Science. One of the key issues I have, especially in Ireland, is that while there is a refrain that we need language skils, the simple truth is historically, we just don’t pay for them.

One of the driving forces for the attraction of any given field of study tends – often – to be a trade off between how hard and how likely you are to earn a lot of money. You can see this with trends in the popularity of courses on the CAO forms in Ireland. And at the moment, there is a big push on STEM subjects for the knowledge economy.

Belinda Parmar of Little Miss Geek wrote a piece in the Guardian last August decrying the waste of time that was her language degree.

I spent a semester learning about Spanish chivalric literature, wrote a dissertation about surrealist images, fell in love with the poetry of Federico García Lorca and, in short, wasted four years of my life. My degree in French and Spanish – despite being a decent grade from a good university – is not worth the paper it’s written on.

I found this utterly depressing but I sort of understand the logic that drove her to that assessment. The skills are not valued economically; it’s as simple as that. I know translators who will tell you on the freelance market, they are getting crushed. Much of the job is automated, and quality requirements are changing. If you want to make a living as a translator, you really need to be off the freelance market. But these are not the only jobs which language graduates can do and it never has been. Nor are they limited to teaching, nor are they limited to bilingual secretarial jobs. At a certain level – and it’s not the lowest level – it doesn’t really matter what you studied at university, you’re not working in your specialisation. Most people I know who studied computer science at university are managers, not techies. Bridging into that gap is difficult though and I don’t know how you make it happen and people who study for language degrees don’t find much flexibility in terms of bringing them on board in the way that other more vocationalised graduates are.

In the meantime, there is a recognition in the UK that language learning has hit a crisis point. Katrin Kohl has a piece in today’s Guardian which highlights the problem. The number of available courses is dropping because they aren’t popular. She notes that getting high marks in language courses can be harder at A-level than it is for STEM subjects. If I were to summarise the problem, it is that the return on effort is too low.

It’s as simple as that. You can put all the effort you like into learning to speak fluent French but very few employers care about it and none of them want to pay for it. In the meantime, an increasing number of people think that Google Translate means that translation skills aren’t that necessary any more, and that games like Duolingo make it easy to learn languages.


One of the joys of being back at university is the unexpected bits of inspiration that pop up. Today was one of those days when…well…

NaoThis is Nao.

Nao came in to visit today, with one of the PhD students who is doing some research on robot-human interaction. I’ve never seen anything quite like him/her (decision to be made really).

I mean, how can you not love something like this:

IMG_1589_cropNao can dance, can walk, can talk and can interact with you. He/she plays this sports game where he/she mimes the sport and you guess.

Nao gets to know you. “Look at my eyes until they turn green”. And they do.

It is fair to say that every single student who met Nao was utterly entranced by him. I would love a Nao of my every own. Nao has five thousand brothers and sisters dotted around the world. Surely there could be one for me?

Here is Nao dancing:

And Gangam style thanks to the University of Canterbury

This is the promo video from Nao’s parents, Aldebaran Robotics.

Here’s what I would do if I wanted to get more people into information technology, computer science and related cutting edge technology. I would acquire a couple of these robots, and I would hand them over to school outreach programs. And I would send them into primary schools and junior cycle secondary and I would say “Look at what you can do if you study work on maths and related.”

This is the stuff of dreams and inspiration. We’re behind the game, I think, if we’re putting iPads into school. If we put Nao into schools, we are putting the future into schools.

Very few schools have the funds to fund a robot like this. It is something that needs to be done at a national level, or possibly by the universities.

Eben Upton at UCD

Eben Upton came to UCD to have a chat about the Raspberry Pi today. Actually, he was accompanied by Alan Lund from RS – whom I should mention spoke very eloquently about the challenges involved in the Raspberry Pi and why it was such a ground breaker for them.

I love the Raspberry Pi. I bought mine last November as a birthday present and one of the key attractions for me at the time was the arrival of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha. I have a lot of time for Stephen Wolfram. But one of the key reasons that I love the Raspberry Pi is that I’m a child of the home computing era. I have been that trooper typing in the code from Atari XL Magazine to try and guide that frog across the road. I have a great respect for anyone else I ever meet who’s had a go at it. Bloody typos.

So I was never going to miss Eben’s talk today.

Eben’s point of view is fairly straightforward but it’s illustrative of other aspects of society which is that we tend not to notice problems coming down the line, not en masse anyway (cf property and stock bubbles the world over). Eben caught a decline in the numbers of students applying for computer science in Cambridge, and a corresponding decline in their experience. His hypothesis is – and I think it’s a reasonable one – that children from a certain era basically had locked down computers rather than the liberty of shoving a tape in the cassette deck and hoping that the thing would boot for a change so that we could attempt to play Flight SImulator again.

Children – to a great extent – had handheld consoles and PlayStations and the PC in the corner, to a greater extent, was probably Mum and Dad’s. So the landscape changed and became a little less free.

We’re screaming now about the lack of qualified technical people. Eben caught this vibe in 2006 and started looking at causes for it. That takes vision.

So, today, he spoke at UCD courtesy of the Mature Students Society and the School of Library and Information Science and he had a lot of interesting things to say.

He went into the history of the idea behind the Raspberry Pi in some detail in an utterly engaging manner, and talked about the difference between their original expectations around it – maybe build 1000 units and ship them out to schools and hope they fell into the right hands – and the reality which is well over two and a half million of them have been sold. Because rather than just being computers for kids. they have appealed to a far broader range of people. This was entirely unexpected.

I’m a bridge hopper on the geek front. I started programming when I was 12 or 13 – I thought it was fantastic what you could do with them, maybe wasn’t the 1% brilliant and sank rather than swam although I typed up some nice graphic thingies into the Atari and regularly beat my brother’s high score in Jet Boot Jack and Flight Apocolyse. And I liked maths a lot.

However, for various reasons, I wound up studying modern languages at university. I probably could have done computer science at the time but I didn’t, at the age of 17, operate in that zone. So I speak fluent French and German. And a smattering of Spanish. I’ve a degree in translation and a diploma in interpreting. And when I was 27. I got hired as a programmer.

Most of my working life, I have worked with IBM assembler. I have worked on Big Iron. I really want to say this because I sometimes find the technological world a bit divisive between us and non-us. I’m not a classical geek but I have done a lot of bare metal programming.

(so I told Eben that we had to get rid of this geek/non geek division).

Anyway, my experience with the Raspberry Pi is this. I bought one. Went into Maplins, bought one, instant gratificationn, the morning of my most recent birthday and then prepared to tell people. Interestingly, my mother’s response was highly positive. She’s not a technical person (although she will have a Raspberry Pi when I eventually sort out her entertainment centre, sometime after I get through the May exams) but she understood completely what Eben was trying to do. She had done it herself 30 years earlier when she went to my cousin and asked his advice about getting a computer for her two youngest children. Her only proviso is that when I make her entertainment centre work, it must be simple to operate.

I fully get that.

One of my friends who has typically fallen squarely into the Users category when it comes to computers is fascinated and wants, again, to look into the idea of an entertainment centre. This time though, she wants me to write the instructions and let her do it herself. She doesn’t at this point want to write code and isn’t really sure if there’s anything else she’d want to do.

I get that too. But more than that, I get the curiosity.

Curiosity matters a whole pile in this game and one of the factors which was most discussed today was the question of computers in education. The UK has just implemented a massive change to their computer science curriculum at EBac level which is Junior Cert level. It has gone from being a user centric process to a developer centric process. There are lots of doubts in terms of how it will be implemented and while this formed no part of Eben’s talk, I am aware that there are serious concerns about the structure put in place to support this. My main concern about this is that it is over ambition and misdirected. I got computers because they were a game, an exploration. When they become a duty, there is a very real risk that people lose a certain amount of interest. I’ve seen this over the year with mathematics and while it is important that people are mathematically literate, the simple truth is that mostly, they are not.

Eben gets this. and the Raspberry Pi Foundation get this so a lot of effort is going into professional development to support teachers and the recognition that there is a communications ask here.

The question and answer session afterwards was interesting; one of the key comments which was made related specifically to the failure of some people to bridge the divide on passing on programming skills. I think this is very important, and I also think that the idea of one true way needs to go. While maths skills are important, programming is very much a creative skill (and this is why I don’t particularly enjoy programming in Java – a lot of elements of creativity are taken out of it for me) and creativity is not a skill limited to people who self identify as geeks.

In the main, if you get a chance to hear Eben speak, I’d grab it. He is utterly engaging, he believes absolutely in what the Raspberry Pi Foundation are doing, and recognises the random steps that have changed things here and there for him – in particular relating to getting the Raspberry Pi manufactured in the UK.

He also mentioned one story which I thought was fantastic and it related to the person who invented the designs for one of the Lego based cases for the Raspberry Pi. She was 11 years old and she negotiated her royalty payment in Lego

I think that is absolutely fantastic and if that’s what it takes to get more kids looking at this, fantastic.

(the other story which I loved involved sending a teddy bear up to the edge of space. I would like to do the same with a Barbie doll – I feel it would be symbolic on a lot of levels plus an interesting technical challenge).

All in all, a fantastic couple of hours.