Some comments on the march of technology in interpreting

Troublesome Terps did a podcast on remote interpreting about a month ago which I finally found time to listen to yesterday. I won’t go into it in too much detail but a couple of things struck me during the conversation which I wanted to tease out as someone who is a trained interpreter, who likes the actual activity of interpreting simultaneously, and who has a bit of experience working in IT, in fact, quite a bit more than working as an interpreter.

When I listened to the piece, it wasn’t so much the discussion on value add that Jonathan Downie discussed – this ties in with a view I’ve expressed elsewhere about how the money in the language industry is not actually in the language bit of the industry per se, but the fact that the discussion caused me to think of two companies in particular putting effort into the self driving sector, namely Tesla and Uber, both, potentially with a view to having a fleet of self driving cars carrying out the work currently done mainly by cabbies. In the meantime, Tesla are selling you cars and learning from your driving habits and Uber are learning from your public transportation needs.

We haven’t really solved machine translation adequately yet. But it has reached a stage to where it is considered “enough” by people who are generally ill qualified to assess whether in fact it is considered “enough” for their market. Output from Google Translate is considered more than enough by lots of people every day who run newspaper articles through it to get a gist. At least one, if not two, crowdfunding campaigns are pushing simultaneous interpreting systems, often pushing its AI and machine learning credibility to sound attractive. In my view, the end game with remote interpreting is less likely to be industrial parks full of interpreting booths or home interpreting systems, and more automated interpreting. Remote interpreting allows the expectation of quality to shift.

We would laugh if any human translator translated Ghent to Cork and yet, I have seen Google Translate do this. We would also not pay the human translator for such egregious errors. But Google is free, so meh. We tolerate it and we use it much more than we ever used human translators.

At some point, after the remote interpreting system, someone is going to AI their marketing speech about an interpreting system which cuts out the need for interpreters because Machine Learning System Blah. Both voice recognition and machine learning need to improve radically across all languages to get there to match humans but if we first bring about a situation where lower standards are tolerated (or cannot be identified) then selling a lesser quality product to the consumers of interpreting services becomes easier.

Much of what remote interpreting is bringing now is basically nothing to interpreters – I have a vision of three interpreters handling a conference somewhere in Frankfurt from their kitchens in South Africa, Berlin and somewhere in Clare, and they cannot really talk to each other in terms of who will take what slots, whether someone will catch a bunch of numbers or run out and get a few bottles of water. It seems to me that a lot of what remote interpreting is about forgets that a lot of conference interpreting is not about 1 person doing some interpreting; it’s about a team of people who need contact and coordination in real time. A lot of remote interpreting is around “this market is ripe for disruption” but the disruption is not necessarily being driven by people who know much about what the service actually involves. It misses a lot of context and perhaps it needs to do that because ultimately, the endgame may not be not about remote interpreting but non-human interpreting.



Treaty of Accession 1972, status of Irish, status of English

I went to the open day at the European Court of Justice and during a question and answer session I am near certain I heard the President of the Court state that in fact, Ireland had named both Irish and English as official languages for the purposes of the European Union. Malta, too, had nominated both Maltese and English.

Why does this matter? Well, the country most associated with English, when we skip the US, is the United Kingdom and they clearly nominated English. However, they decided last year they were taking the path less travelled, as it were. This led to a lot of discussion – to put it mildly – hysteria might be a better description – about how English would no longer be an official language in the European Union after Brexit.

The problem is, this idea of nominating languages by country is not something I have really found in the official documentation. Clearly I am not a European lawyer, and I don’t work at the European Court of Justice. But.

If you read Alexander Drechsel’s piece on the subject, he will tell you that language and linguistic arrangements are covered by Resolution number 1 in 1958 Article 1 of which states that the

The official languages and the working languages of the institutions of the Community shall be Dutch, French, German and Italian.

Slight lack of English there but bear with me.

Ireland, the UK, Norway and Denmark negotiated membership of the European Economic Communities in 1972. The Treaty agreed between the four countries seeking membership and the EEC as it was at the time was subject to ratification (which Norway did not complete, hence it is not a member) was drafted in the then 4 official languages of the EEC, as listed above. It has some provisions relating to linguistic arrangements. The Treaty itself was drawn up in 8 languages.

This Treaty, drawn up in a single original in the
Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Irish, Italian
and Norwegian languages, all eight texts being
equally authentic, will be deposited in the archives of
the Government of the Italian Republic, which will
transmit a certified copy to each of the Governments
of the other signatory States.

(Article 3)

The corresponding Council Decision was also drawn up in the same languages. The point to note here is that Irish is listed.

The texts of the acts of the institutions of the Communities
adopted before accession and drawn up by
the Council or the Commission in the Danish, English
and Norwegian languages shall, from the date of
accession, be authentic under the same conditions as
the texts drawn up in the four original ‘languages.
They shall be published in the Official Journal of the
European Communities if the texts in the original
languages were so published.

(Article 155)

The key point to note here is that Irish is not listed.

The texts of the Treaty establishing the European
Economic Community and the Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community, and the
Treaties amending or supplementing them, drawn up
in the Danish, English, Irish and Norwegian languages,
shall be annexed to this Act. These texts shall
be authentic und6r the same conditions as the original
texts of the Treaties referred to above.

(Article 160)

Without wanting to be too predictable but the key point to note here is that Irish is listed.


1 . Council Regulation No 1 of 15 April 1958
OJ No 17/385, 6 October 1958

Article 1 is replaced by the following:

” The official languages and the working
languages of the institutions of the Community
shall be Danish, German, English, French, Italian,
Dutch and Norwegian.”

This is a modification to the Council Regulation I mentioned at the start. Note that Irish is not included here.

(Annex 1)

The texts of the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community and of the Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community, together with the Treaties amending or supplementing them, in the Danish, English, Irish and Norwegian

(FINAL ACT  Documents included – D)

However, the Final Act of the treaty which lists the documents which should be in annex, specifies that the texts of the Treaties, and any treaties amending or supplementing them, should be in Irish (plus the other three languages assuming Norway had chosen to ratify in the end).

Irish is missing from two places – the modification to Article 1, Regulation 1/58. It is also missing from Article 155 which relates to acts drawn up by the institutions. In 1972, at least, it seems clear that English was acceptable to Ireland as an official and working language. The status of Irish is commonly described as “Treaty language”. The primary legislation needed to be translated into Irish but it was not a working or official language otherwise. I made a cursory look at the Irish National Archive’s website to see if perhaps there was any way of finding any internal Irish Government discussions on the matter but a quick review brought nothing and of course there is the added issue that documents from 1972 may not have been digitised either. Obviously the status of the Irish language changed in 2007 when it became a full official and working language with the derogations allowing gradual implementation.

What does this mean for English? Well strictly speaking, as I understand it, any changes to Article 1 of Regulation 1/58 needs to be agreed by the Council unanimously. I am not sure Malta and Ireland would agree with removing English. For now, at least, there were 24 official and working languages, and de facto, the institutions still have 3 procedural languages (English, French and German).  In the meantime, the legal underpinning of this concept of notifying official languages to the EU still eludes me.


Regulation 1/58 EN

Treaty of Accession EN


Interpreting Donald Trump

A couple of months ago, there was a flurry of online media pieces about the difficulties people had rendering Donald Trump’s speeches into AN Other Languages Not English.

During the week, the Troublesome Terps podcast (and if you are interested in languages for international communication, that really is worth your while) had a chat with Franz Kubaczyk who had the privilege, as it were, of doing it for a few German TV stations. You can find the podcast episode here, they are also available on a range of podcast management outfits like iTunes as far as I know. Also, follow them on twitter.

I found a couple of things interesting about this episode that I would not normally think about and which are not especially linked to Donald Trump per se. In the grand scheme of things, while Donald Trump brings certain challenges (I really do not know how one deals with “and I’m gonna Make America Great Again” without wanting to scream after about the second one), what is most interesting to me about this piece is the mechanics of interpreting for television.

There’s an interesting difference between renditions in English on English language TV of foreign language interviews/speeches (specifically British in my experience) in that very often, the renditions in English are not given by native English speakers. That they carry a foreign accent of some description. This does not seem to be the case with Donald Trump into German for example and given that the online pieces on the matter tended not to feature English native speakers working into a foreign or B language, this could imply (without any data to support or dismiss this theory) that maybe English media is alone in doing this. Or possibly it is source language specific.

The other point is the episode also contains a discussion on the need for acting skills, and the fact that for the inauguration at least the interpreting was not live but the interpreters had opportunities to re-record parts. Leaving aside the fact that the inauguration in general is not the most common type of piece which needs to be interpreted for newsmedia, what struck me there was there seemed to be a very thin line between interpreting and dubbing in this respect.

I have to confess that interpreting for television was never something which really struck me as a career option but I tend to find the mechanics of cross cultural communications quite interesting and how you approach the problem of a politician like Donald Trump is something that we don’t perhaps think about very often.



Junior Cert Languages in Ireland

For pretty much most of my adult life I have been regretting the fact that we do not teach languages effectively in Ireland. One of my key concerns is that as a country, Ireland does not value those skills.

During the week, Richard Bruton, Minister for Education, announced that in the future, all students for the Junior Certificate (this is the exam taken at around age 15 or 16 in Ireland) would study a foreign language. He is quoted as saying a couple of things which interested me:

“We are going to have to, post-Brexit, realise that one of the common weaknesses of English speaking countries – that we disregard foreign languages – has to be addressed in Ireland.

He is also targeting a 10% increase in the number of students taking languages at Leaving Certificate level. There is also a desire to expand the range of languages taught in Irish schools. All of this is laudable.

“We need now to trade in the growth areas – and many of those speak Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin. Those are the languages that we need to learn to continue to trade successfully.”

One of the key issues which we need to address, however, is the lack of teachers in these areas. And we need to take a long hard look at how successful we have been with the more common languages like French. It is one thing to say we will teach more languages. It is an entirely different kettle of fish when it comes to acknowledging we have made a hamfisted mess of it so far. We teach people Irish from the age of 5 and have not yet got that right for example.

There are other issues. If you take a look at the availability of languages at third level, you’ll find Spanish has reasonable coverage. The others do not. It might be possible to take Portuguese in UCC under their world languages program but most common across the university system in Ireland are French, German and Spanish with possibly Japanese as the outlier.

Against that, in absolute terms, more students study foreign languages in Ireland (even if we don’t count Irish as a second language) than do in England and Wales.

On the plus side, I’m really happy to see that there is a will to fix the gaps in foreign language acquisition in the Irish school system. But I think there is a lot to do outside simply putting a curriculum together and getting kids to study it at school. What does not support language acquisition in Ireland is the chronic lack of credible media in foreign languages. If you listen to radio in most European countries, they are playing a wider range of pop music in a bunch of different languages. Our media is incredibly anglo centric. When I was at school in the 1980s there were two French pop songs in the charts, one called Voyage Voyage and one called Joe Le Taxi (it catapulted Vanessa Paradis into the big time). Foreign language television tends to be relegated to the smaller stations, in Ireland TG 4 and in the UK, BBC 4. The rep for TV5 has his heart broken on twitter trying to make it clear that TV5Europe is available on most sat systems available in Ireland.

I learned an awful lot of my French by watching of all things Beverly Hills 90210 dubbed into French.

If we are going to say “We, in Ireland, recognise that we need to learn foreign languages”, we also need to say “And we will try and get the media to get their asses in gear to support this”.

In a way, this is recognised by his counterpart in opposition, Thomas Byrne.

Any modern language strategy must be across all Government departments as well. It can’t just be about the education system – it has to be how we live our lives, how we interact with the wider world.

I’d also add that in one respect, I think that Richard Bruton maybe should reconsider this:

At the moment if you look at Leaving Cert and Junior Cert, French dominates. French is a lovely language, but we need to recognise that we need to diversify into other languages

In the grand scheme of things, he is probably aware that a stated element of Irish foreign policy at the moment is to encourage and support as many people as the country can into the European institutions. One of the key issues we have in this respect is that not enough people come out of school with fluent French or German. We may need to diversity into other languages but I think we need to ensure that in the future, we are not looking at one foreign language, but two and that Irish people have a command of two of the working languages of the institutions of the European Union.

I’m very glad that education policy is being looked at in this context. It would be interesting to see more concrete plans and a timeframe for making this reality.

The report on the matter is here on the Newstalk site.

Interpreters – male or female?

I was catching up with Troublesome Terps earlier today and was interested to have a listen to their views, and the views of their guest speaker on the question of the male female split in interpreting. You can have a listen to the piece here and they have provided some reading material which I have not yet had a chance to have a look at.

In summary though, the theme of their piece is that the gender split in interpreting is not even and there is a preponderance of women and they discussed why that may be. Amongst the items being discussed were rationales along the lines of career opportunity and whether men desired a clear promotional structure.

I found it interesting to listen to the discussion, and it covered a lot of interesting things relating to voice, and the different use of language depending on whether the speaker was male or female. If you are interested in interpreting, it is certainly worth a listen, and some of it is thought provoking.

One point which was only barely touched upon came from a passing comment of Jonathan Downie on the subject of the pipeline. I don’t think he called it that, but pipeline is the accepted term in technology for the incoming cohort of people training to come into the sector, and I think it’s a suitable term also for upcoming potential interpreters. The pipeline is core to discussions about the lack of women in the tech sector. In truth, the tech sector has a chronic lack of women, and its problem is largely two fold: comparatively few women study fields that would line them into technical roles in the technology sector, and of those who do, a lot of them drop out of the sector, or the technical roles, over time. The pipeline is often targeted as a useful and simple solution of the “if we only got more women studying comp sci, it would all be more diverse later”. For various reasons, this is probably not enough but I will come to that later.

Jonathan made the comment that in the interpreting pipeline, it wasn’t so much the lack of men which he noticed at masters level as the lack of British students in the field. As it happens, I’ve previously done some number crunching in the language pipeline for the UK excluding Scotland, and Ireland, going back to 2015. You’ll find a very quick overview of the findings here. The reason Scotland isn’t included is that at the time I ran those numbers (ages ago now), I did not have access to the corresponding figures for the Scottish Highers. The key line that I want to take away from this however is this:

on average, twice as many girls study languages at school leaving stage in both the Irish leaving certificate system and at A-level stage in England/Wales

If I recall correctly, the general finger in the area calculation for the split of interpreters between female and male was around 2:1 or 3:1. It can vary slightly depending on the language.

By the way, in absolute terms, more students study higher level French in Ireland than take A-Level French in England/Wales (I can’t remember if Northern Ireland was included in those figures). Additionally, the supply of language teaching at third level is drying up in the UK with a couple of very common languages (I did research on that too) scattered across the UK and, I think, 2 or 3 schools dealing with the wider range of less common languages.

However, that is all by way of an aside. In the UK and Ireland, at least there is a serious pipeline issue with language skills for boys. In general there are at least 2 girls for every one boy studying language at advanced secondary level. However, it is wrong to extrapolate from the experience in the UK and Ireland to any other country for a variety of reasons, the key one being that other countries make a better fist of teaching their young people foreign languages in general terms (cf Finland, the Netherlands and how to make me feel inadequate Luxembourg), so the lack of a cohort prepared for specialist language courses is potentially not such an issue there. However, it looks in practical terms as though men are not following them. The question is why. I am pretty sure that the answer to that question is not straightforward, but similar to the situation for women in computer science, for example, it has its roots far earlier in the school system. There is research around to suggest that girls are caused to be disinterested in maths and science related subjects based on how they are treated as early as primary school. Socialisation may have a lot to do with how people perceive their strengths for different subjects at an early age. This is a useful piece dealing with that, although it’s six years old and I’m pretty sure there’s been more in depth stuff, particularly in terms of mathematics, in the interim.

So this is one issue with the pipeline. The second issue with the pipeline relates to the perception of the job itself, and this is where I’m going to pop up with a certain amount of speculation. Because of how the system in Ireland works in terms of winning places at university, there is evidence to suggest that a key motivator for some students in terms of their choice of university studies is the likelihood of economic success. In Ireland, that tends to be law and veterinary sciences, with pharm a little way back, and then, things vary according to economic fashion. The bottom fell out of architecture and construction related courses, comparatively speaking, a few years ago, for example. Language related careers are rarely up there with their name in lights. No one mentioned interpreting to me at school (I hardly knew they existed) and we did family research before we even tracked down translation because the school was more interested in marketing courses which were trendy when I was a young one.

So, generalising wildly, there’s a pipeline issue because boys are funneled towards technical courses and in general terms, the career of interpreter is not necessarily high profile as a good earning opportunity.

I suppose the question which next arises is what happens to men once they are in the pipeline and in the industry. I cannot really answer this question as I don’t currently work as an interpreter. I took an interest in this piece because I trained as an interpreter but work primarily in the tech sector where matters are largely inverse, and where there is a great deal of discussion on the question of women in the pipeline, women in the industry, diversity in the industry. Yesterday or the day before, Susan Fowler, a site reliability engineer, published this on her blog. My personal experience has involved men telling me the only reason women go to college is to get married and anyway they don’t know how to work (imagine a 21 year old bachelor student saying this to a female masters student with more than 10 years experience working in the tech sector and you’ll get an idea of just how stupidly obnoxious some people can be).

Is the interpreting sector sexist? I don’t know if it is, or whether the split is a symptom of wider attitudes in society which have their roots at a far earlier stage of education. It seems to me, however, that there is not necessarily a similar level of pushing men out of interpreting as can be seem in certain parts of the tech sector. Would we better off with a better balance? I think yes we probably would but that’s because in general, society is better off with a better balance across most jobs. Do I think interpreting as a skill is adequately valued? The straight answer to that is right now, and depending on your culture, probably not. Clearly, the large international organisations could not function without interpreters. Nor could the US or British armies in Iraq and Afghanistan. However – anecdote alert – when I did CPD in Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh last year – one course participant noted that historically, in her country, at certain times, interpreters tended to be men because it was a distinguished role and could not be left to mere women. Strangely enough, software development and programming, in the early days, was left to women because it was not considered to be particularly difficult (hah) and the men did more praiseworthy and important work with hardware engineering. It seems culture and perception have an awful lot to answer for on both fronts.

WordPress tells me this is nearly 1,500 words, so for the tl;dr version: it strikes me as though the lack of men in interpreting is programmed into the system quite early, and subsequently, the lack of economic value linked with the role may serve to lessen the attraction for men who tend to target economically important jobs (or perceived better paying roles anyway), or who potentially tend to get paid more when the majority of their cohort are also male.

From that point of view – and it kills me to say it – one of the best things female workers in areas which are predominantly female staffed (so nursing, teaching, interpreting, translation) could do to improve their earning potential is to increase significantly the number of men in their sector.

And a corollary of this, by the way, strikes me as being a likely motivation for getting more women into computer science and related fields – namely reducing the cost of those roles.

Okay. I might revisit this later when I am awake.




The invisible conduit of interpreting

Jonathan Downie made an interesting comment on his twitter this morning.

Interpreting will never be respected as a profession while its practitioners cling to the idea that they are invisible conduits.

Several things occurred to me about this and in no particular order, I’m going to dump them out here (and then write in a little more detail how I feel about respect/interpreting)

  1. Some time ago I read a piece on the language industry and how much money it generated. The more I read it, the more I realised that there was little to no money in providing language skills; the money concentrated itself in brokering those skills. In agencies who buy and sell services rather than people who actually carry out the tasks. This is not unusual. Ask the average pop musician how much money they make out of their activities and then check with their record company.
  2. As particular activities become more heavily populated with women, the salary potential for those activities drops.
  3. Computers and technology.

Even if you dealt with 1 and 2 – and I am not sure how you would, one of the biggest problems that people providing language services now have is the existence of free online translation services and, for the purposes of interpreters, coupled with the ongoing confusion between translation and interpreting, the existence Google Translate and MS’s Skype Translate will continue to undermine the profession.

However, the problem is much wider than that. There are elements of the technology sector who want lots of money for technology, but want the content that makes that technology salable for free. Wikipedia is generated by volunteers. Facebook runs automated translation and requests correction from users. Duolingo’s content is generated by volunteers and their product is not language learning, it is their language learning platform. In return, they expect translation to be carried out.

All of this devalues the human element in providing language skills. The technology sector is expecting it for free, and it is getting it for free, probably from people who should not be doing it either. This has an interesting impact on the ability of professionals to charge for work. This is not a new story. Automated mass production processes did it to the craft sector too. What generally happens is we reach a zone where “good enough” is a moveable feast, and it generally moves downwards. This is a cultural feature of the technology sector:

The technology sector has a concept called “minimum viable product”. This should tell you all you need to know about what the technology sector considers as success.

But – and there is always a but – the problem is not what machine translation can achieve – but what people think it achieves. I have school teacher friends who are worn out from telling their students that running their essays through Google Translate is not going to provide them with a viable essay. Why pay for humans to do work which costs a lot of money when we can a) get it for free or b) a lot less from via machine translation.

This is the atmosphere in which interpreters, and translators, and foreign language teachers, are trying to ply their profession. It is undervalued because a lower quality product which supplies “enough” for most people is freely and easily available. And most people are not qualified to assess quality in terms of content, so they assess on price. At this point, I want to mention Dunning-Kruger because it affects a lot of things. When MH370 went missing, people who work in aviation comms technology tried in vain to explain that just because you had a GPS on your phone, didn’t mean that MH370 should be locatable in a place which didn’t have any cell towers. Call it a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Most people are not aware of how limited their knowledge is. This is nothing new. English as She is Spoke is a classic example dating from the 19th century.

I know well who I have to make.

My general experience, however, is that people monumentally over estimate their foreign language skills and you don’t have to be trying to flog an English language phrasebook in Portugal in the late 19th century to find them…

All that aside, though, interpreting services, and those of most professions, have a serious, serious image problem. They are an innate upfront cost. Somewhere on the web, there is advice for people in the technology sector which points out, absolutely correctly, that information technology is generally seen as a cost, and that if you are working in an area perceived to be a cost to the business, your career prospects are less obvious than those who work in an area perceived to be a revenue generating section of the business. This might explain why marketing is paid more than support, for example.

Interpreting and translation are generally perceived as a cost. It’s hard to respect people whose services you resent paying for and this, for example, probably explains the grief with court interpreting services in the UK, why teachers and health sector salaries are being stamped on while MPs are getting attractive salary improvements. I could go on but those are useful public examples.

For years, interpreting has leaned on an image of discretion, a silent service which is most successful if it is invisible. I suspect that for years, that worked because of the nature of people who typically used interpreting services. The world changes, however. I am not sure what the answer is although as an industry, interpreting needs to focus on the value add it brings and why the upfront cost of interpreting is less than the overall cost of pretending the service is not necessary.

Some of my best friends are interpreters…

Most mornings, I read Ryan Heath’s newsletter from Politico. I like it for a lot of reasons – there’s a very strong scattering of pan European news links for example, and the news is insular at a European level rather than at a local city level. These are good things as they broaden my horizons. He’s generally a good curator of stuff that interests me as well – at this point I would say that if you have any interest in Europe and European affairs, it is worth subscribing.

So what has this to do with interpreters and the sky over them? Well this morning, he pointed at this story in the EU Observer. It quotes Klaus Welle as follows:

Speak slowly, speak in your mother tongue. Those are the main elements which lead to a deterioration in quality,” he noted. “It drives them crazy”.

I do, as it happens, spend quite a bit of my time, listening to EU parliamentary committee meetings and parliamentary plenary sessions. I also know how to interpret. I just don’t do it for a living right now. I know what Klaus Welle is trying to achieve. I think it’s laudable, and I think it is necessary. I just wish he had…tried to do it differently.

Interpreting is a highly challenging activity mentally. We have a limited understanding of how people can even do it, but they do, and in so doing, they facilitate communications between many people who might not otherwise be able to communicate. In many respects, simultaneous interpreters are basically babelfish.

Their job is to facilitate communication and when you have a room of up to 600 people who speak, between them, up to 24 languages, that’s massively impressive. And for the most part, they are so good, we take it for granted.

European Parliament procedures bring some interesting challenges however, and a key one is that when you have limited speaking time – which is guaranteed to be the case in a plenary session – people, rather predictably, try to maximise it and carefully write speeches to get as much into their 1 or 2 allotted minutes. As a result, what people are confronted with is not so much a minute of spoken language, but a minute of densely packed written language, read out.

Now, it could be argued that the average MEP has the right to do this. When they do this, however, they make it harder for their audience, be that those who share their language, or those who need to find a way of rendering it into another language. Maybe they are not necessarily representing the interests of their constituents if they are not taking into account the best way of communicating their interests. Maybe it is just completely counterproductive.

In other words, if you are speaking in a chamber where what you are saying needs to be interpreted into 23 other languages, the likelihood is that you’ll be more successful if you take that fact into consideration, not just for the interpreters, but for your colleagues. Other MEPs. And especially, for the people you represent. This is not a question of preventing interpreters from going crazy. It is a question of helping them to help you get your message across. That is, after all, what they are there for.

As I mentioned, I listen to the European Parliament feeds when I have time. I have heard people switch language mid contribution. I have seen plenary contributions delivered at such high speed that they were very nearly incomprehensible. And I have heard chairs pleading with contributors to slow down and give the interpreting service a chance.

Against that, I have heard some clear, concise speakers who were a pleasure to listen to.

Railing against interpreters going crazy just because they are pleading for people to speak in a manner that makes it possible for them to be interpreted is missing the point. The speakers have a part to play in facilitating communication too. Otherwise, why speak?



Undergraduate languages in the United Kingdom

I write, from time to time, on language related matters and one of the items on my list of backburner projects was to have a look at undergraduate language options in the United Kingdom. I had a look at Ireland as well but since we have 7 universities, there isn’t very much of interest to consider when it comes to language provision in Ireland. UCC is about your best option there. I’ll post the graph of that later.

The United Kingdom is interesting for a couple of reasons: firstly, tuition provision in languages has been falling off a cliff there and language departments have been closing near hand over fist. One of my recollections relating to language tuition provision in the university sector was that there was a great breadth of provision in terms of languages offered when I was looking for somewhere to study back in 1990, and given changes to language related matters in the UK in the interim, I was interested to see how things looked. Data, however, is not that easily come by and in the end I would up collecting it manually.

One of the things I wanted to do was see what the obvious clusters were and it occurred to me that using languages and higher education organisations as nodes might allow a network chart to be built. I actually did a proof of concept of that with the Irish provisions purely because there were neither too many languages nor too many universities (seven of the latter and not far off seven for the former). The network depicting software which I used was Gephi.

According to the basic research which I did, 78 higher education organisations are offering primary degrees of which a language is a major component. I suspect, if I were to look more closely and root out things like “International Business With A Language” type degrees, the number of pure language related courses would be significantly lower. I have not decided how best to sort out data to get that information and I may not do it just yet.

Eventually, when I plotted things, there was an interesting imbalance on the graph. I noted this on the graph itself for which you can find here, but it is obvious enough below too.

UnitedKingdomWhat this tells you is that if you want to learn anything other than, effectively, French, Spanish, English, Italian, German, Russian or Chinese, most of your options are limited to two universities in London or one in Edinburgh. The overwhelming number of universities which offer any language study at all draw primarily from the seven listed above. There are a few stragglers around but that’s more or less the way things are.

One of the things I would consider doing with this data at some stage is comparing language provision in the United Kingdom with language provision in the university sector in a bunch of other European countries, and also, looking at comparing provision of official European languages within the university sector across Europe. I really have no idea how I could quickly get this data together – I do not know if it’s even available anywhere. But it would be interesting to see where the holes exist in terms of provision of tuition at university level of official European languages.

Language learning

I found myself taking part in a discussion on language learning this morning and thought it might be worth a while to drop in some things that are on my bloglater list. I will develop them in more depth later maybe but this is just an overview of them.

  1. on average, twice as many girls study languages at school leaving stage in both the Irish leaving certificate system and at A-level stage in England/Wales
  2. in absolute numbers, more students study higher level French in Ireland than study A-level French. A-level students have a higher average grade than HL Leaving certificate students and almost 30% get an A or higher at A-level, versus around 13% in Ireland.
  3. After French, the second most popular A-level foreign language is Spanish where the number of candidates is higher than for HL LC candidates.
  4. Spanish is the only language where there are more A-level candidates than HL LC candidates.
  5. The second most popular language for HL LC is German.
  6. HL LC statistics give figures for Italian; the A-Level stats didn’t, but interestingly, did give figures for Irish. If they were higher than Italian, then the figures for Italian are extremely low at A-Level stage.
  7. Amazon has opened up its Kindle store to include significantly more foreign language literature than was previously the case.
  8. The internet makes access to foreign language media significantly easier than was previously the case
  9. Facebook allows you to customise your newsfeed sources to include foreign language media options more easily than Google does. Google News, however customisable it is, is still a fiasco in that respect. It is distinctly monolingual – so while I can easily pull in foreign sources, those foreign sources are still English language.

With respect to the A-Level  HL LC comparison, there are serious difficulties in doing a qualitative comparison given feature differences between the two exam systems, viz, in terms of mandatory subjects and de-facto mandatory subjects. The Leaving cert is a marginally less specialist set up and it is worth noting that the comparison figures above are specifically higher level figures and do not include the high number of students taking ordinary level studies. Students at LC level take 6 to 7 subjects whereas A-level tops out at 4 usually. Irish, English and mathematics are defacto mandatory in Ireland – nearly every single students takes all three – and most university requirements include a minimum of some sort of a pass in a foreign language module. Hence, the motivations are different. This may be reflected in the average grades which, for A-level, are across the board, higher.

Data sources:

  • HL Leaving certificate:
  • A-level:

Language skills.

The Economist is shouting about lack of language skills in the UK again. Their basic thesis is that the lack of language skills amongst UK workers costs in economic growth. I’m not sure how much we can stand over that assertion – the Economist admits as much –

This lack of language skills also lowers growth. By exactly how much is hard to say, but one estimate, by James Foreman-Peck of Cardiff University, puts the “gross language effect” (the income foregone because language barriers alter and reduce international trade) in 2012 as high as £59 billion ($90 billion), or 3.5% of GDP.

which suggests it’s basically educated guesswork.

For unrelated reasons, I had a look at CPL’s language vacancies yesterday and the one thing that interested me is how low the salaries are on average.

The simple issue is this: if we do not value language skills economically, people will not study to acquire those skills.

Comparatively, we value programming skills more highly although they are significantly easier to come by. Put simply, the amount of time required to get usefully acquainted with a programming language (including assembler) is significantly less than the amount of time required to get usefully acquainted with a foreign language.

Put simply, the return on effort in acquiring foreign language skills to a high level, is low compared to the return on effort in acquiring programming skills.

I might have more sympathy for the idea that the economy was suffering by a supposed lack of foreign language skills if foreign language skills related salaries were increasing. The truth is they aren’t, really, because the skills are being imported.