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.