Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Is the British linguist endangered?

Is the British linguist as endangered as the red squirrel?
The corporate language in many companies today is often English. Rumours are circulating that even the European Union is considering using English as its sole working language. Clients expect translators only to work into their mother tongue. The European translation standard EN15038 recognises this. It seems that our largely monolingual British politicians consider the supremacy of English an advantage. As a linguist, I recognise how important language training is to understanding other cultures and broadening the mind.

Languages in the business world
I read recently that the Kristalina Georgieva, the Bulgarian Vice-President for Budget and Human Resources at the European Commission accepted that she had to speak English for her career. For the British linguist, the situation is very different.

During my career, there have been many occasions when I could have handled a meeting in French or German. They all usually took place in English, because at least one of the senior British managers could only speak English. This situation leads to the erosion of a British linguist's language skills and confidence.

Contrary to popular belief or published surveys, UK companies do not appear to value language skills as highly as they claim. They generally prefer to employ other nationalities. Nordic countries, Germans, the Swiss and the Dutch generally speak English extremely well. However, they can rarely write it as well, or fully appreciate nuances and idioms.

Promote the British linguist
I believe that the UK language-related institutes should promote the cause of the British linguist. This is not to suggest that they should neglect the interests of members with other nationalities. You can hardly expect the German BDÜ to promote linguists' education and language professions in the UK, can you?

Pic of woman with folder in front of Union Jack flag
Promoting the British linguist © UMB-O

"Non-native" translation
When I was a Council Member at the Chartered Institute of Linguists, an article appeared in The Linguist presenting a German translator's case for translating into English. At the time, I wanted to write a letter to the editor. Having written my MSc dissertation on EN15038, I felt quite strongly about the issue. However, I respected that it was not considered appropriate for a Council member to criticise the editorial policy in print at that time.

Cultural understanding
Most politicians in our country are monoglots. They are accustomed to conducting business abroad in English. Many seem to feel that it is an advantage to speak English. As a linguist, I appreciate how much cultural understanding is missed or lost. I was studying in France in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was arguing with the EU over a budget rebate. The French very much respect and enjoy a good debate. However, I remember how every time I went into my bank, they were always baffled by our Prime Minister's manner and approach.

Is English an advantage or a disadvantage?
Misunderstandings can easily arise if if a foreign national has to present their case in English. The discomfort can even lead to a build-up of resentment. It is difficult to express everything as clearly and in as much detail as you might like. On the other hand, it is also said that it is easier to keep your calm and emotional distance in a foreign language.

I always prefer to listen to someone speaking in his or her native tongue. I find that it is far easier to assess their personality, intellect and intentions. I also believe that speaking other languages has made me more receptive to other cultures and more open-minded.

I was appalled to read about Caroline Lucas' experiences as an MP in the Press recently. It is hardly surprising that there are so few female MPs. It must be very hard to have to vote with the party line against your conscience. And why would you not choose the best person possible for a committee based on their skills?

Open data?
As we all know, the British linguist has had a very difficult time. It is sad that the review of the MoJ Framework agreement has been delayed until after the elections. I attended a UKTI Smart City event for SMEs in March at City Hall, London. I understand that the speakers were unable to reveal some Smart City information until after the elections there too. I can't help wondering how much other information is being delayed. Is this democratic? How can voters decide properly if all information is not shared with them? Is this approach in keeping with the new era of open data?

Public v. Private Sector
Of course, unlike many of my former fellow Council members, I have spent almost my entire career in the private sector. I have only ever worked in the public sector temporarily. I have never had to sign the Official Secrets Act. I suppose my views may be construed as ignorance or naïvety on how the public sector functions.

MoJ Framework Agreement
I remember writing to my MP, Sir John Randall about the MoJ Framework agreement. At the time, I was writing an article for Multilingual Magazine. Until recently, John Randall was the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. He was Deputy Chief Whip between 2010 and 2013. He famously resigned as the Opposition Whip over the Iraq War. I thought that he might be particularly interested in the MoJ Framework Agreement. After all, he is a linguist who studied Serbo-Croat at university. I was disappointed that he didn't attend a debate after I had raised the issue with him. I know he was very concerned about modern-day slavery in the area. (As a safe Conservative seat, our new MP is expected to be London's Mayor, Boris Johnson).

Ethnic identity
I should like to make it clear that when I refer to non-native English, I am not referring to ethnicity. My own children are mixed race on their father's side - a mixture of Indian, Portuguese, Irish and Welsh. I increasingly detest ethnic monitoring forms. What is "white British"? Should one brother tick a different box because of a slightly darker skin tone? I am glad that as teenagers, my sons can now decide on their own ethnic identity. They both consider themselves British. They support England in the football, cricket, etc; Lewis Hamilton in the F1. Unfortunately, they don't speak Tamil, Hindi, Portuguese, Gaelic or Welsh. The National Curriculum even put them off Spanish.

Identity over 3 generations
I remember attending an event at European Commission Representation in the UK during the Cypriot Presidency of the EU. Writers of Greek and Turkish Cypriot origin discussed their work together. One of the writers described a similar situation to that of my children. She was in the third generation of her family in the UK. She mentioned how the first generation (her grandparents) had found the adjustment after immigration difficult. Her parents in the second generation had more of an identity crisis between the two cultures. She considered herself British. She supported England in the football, although some of the extended members of her family disapproved.

A' level language range
I feel that dropping rarer languages from the A' level syllabus is short-sighted. Yes, it is important that immigrants speak and write English. However, it is also important to retain and pass on a sense of cultural identity and history. The latest issue of The Linguist has an excellent article on Saturday schools for children.

Polish in West London
In West London, Polish is the second most commonly spoken language. I believe that it would be an enormous loss to Britain if immigrants were to entirely lose their Polish. Without a formal education in Polish, children would not be able to speak or write their grandparents' mother tongue accurately. Trade with Poland could be greatly facilitated if Britain actively promotes cultural understanding and the Polish language in the younger generation.

Ruislip has a very long association with Poles. I hear Polish nearly every day. My home is near the Polish War Memorial. Polish airmen were based here at RAF Northolt. They fought with the British in World War II. Many had to settle here after the war. They are very much part of the local community. Now new generations are following them.

Pic of Polish War Memorial near RAF Northolt in South Ruislip
Polish War Memorial, Ruislip CC BY-SA 3.0

Cultural diversity
Britain today has an extraordinarily diverse population. Mass immigration is placing a strain on infrastructure, but this diversity could also be turned to great economic advantage. Britain has the opportunity to become much more attuned to other cultures and languages. Perhaps it is not viable for all languages to have their own A' level. Could the Chartered Institute of Linguists or another body create suitable professional examinations in rarer languages?

Grey squirrel © robert cicchetti

The British population is already very culturally diverse. We're not endangered red squirrels, we've been grey squirrels for centuries already. The best place to see how to handle cultural diversity is in primary school playgrounds. British linguists do not have to be an endangered species. We could have a whole new generation of bilinguals, if only we realise and promote the opportunities.

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Karen Andrews runs
Anglicity Ltd. She is a
technical writer and 
translator with over
15 years' global marketing
experience. Anglicity offers
marketing consultancy with a 
focus on innovation
and the environment.
Find me on Twitter @AnglicityKaren

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