Extolling the Virtues of Language Learning and of Linguists

By Sue Orchard

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At Comms Multilingual, we are passionate about languages, and we were delighted to see the following article, published in the journal “The Linguist” (produced by the Chartered Institute of Linguists), extolling the virtues of language learning and of linguists themselves. 

Baroness Coussins
Baroness Coussins

The following is part of an article written by Baroness Coussins, who is Co-Chair of the British all-party parliamentary group on Modern Languages and a Vice President and Honorary Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (www.ciol.org.uk). This article was published on the Chartered Institute of Linguists web site, aimed at members of the CIoL and written with that in mind.

 “Positive about Languages – why there has never been a better time to be a linguist.”

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to meet with a group of such distinguished linguists and managers of highly specialised language services. I am a languages’ graduate myself and call myself a linguist, but I am acutely aware that my skills are very amateur indeed compared to yours, despite some decades ago actually having worked and volunteered as an interpreter now and again.

But I am glad to have the platform of the British all-party parliamentary group on Modern Languages which I co-chair not only to promote the teaching and learning of languages but to sing the praises of linguists. The strategic importance of linguists goes largely unnoticed and unsung, despite being so vital.

Other disciplines, such as classics, science and history, have thrown up high profile media figures and glossy, popular TV programmes. But there are no TV linguists to help fire up the interest of the next generation in learning a language. I think that it’s because language and the cultural knowledge that goes with it is not only an academic and intellectual discipline in its own right, it’s also a vital enabling ingredient running through all other disciplines. So people don’t quite know where to place languages and so they become, or remain, invisible or taken for granted.

Indeed, some people think that now we’ve left the EU, we needn’t bother to learn languages any more. I’ve heard plenty of anecdotes from school teachers saying that their students are sighing with relief that they don’t need to bother with their French lessons any more because they won’t need it in future. What a contradictory world these young people live in: on the one hand retreating into a post Brexit little island mindset, and on the other, being in instant contact every second of the day via their smart digital devices with anyone and everyone in the world.

Some people think that now we can always turn to Google Translate, we needn’t bother to learn any languages ourselves because a machine will do the job.

And some people think everyone speaks English anyway, so what’s the point of making an effort?

You (members of the Chartered Institute of Linguists in the UK) of all people don’t need telling that these are all dangerous myths. In the 21st century, English – important though it is – is not enough.  Speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English.

In fact, only 6% of the world’s population are native English speakers and 75% speak no English at all.

In a post Brexit world where the UK seeks to redefine its place and establish leadership in international relations, security and soft power, negotiating umpteen new free trade agreements, young people will need languages more than ever for the culturally agile, mobile and interconnected jobs of the future.

The amount of internet content in English is declining, with Mandarin increasingly rapidly. Arabic is the most used language across all social media platforms. There are more blogs in Japanese than in English. And French and German still regularly come top of UK employers’ skill-set wish list.

As for machine translation, while it undoubtedly has its place, it can never replace humans when it comes to nuance, cultural sensitivity and complex understanding or meaning. The excellent language training by the diplomatic service, the armed forces, police and security services is testimony to the importance of real people making a crucial difference with their language skills.

On a different level altogether, you probably saw the amusing story that made the media headlines a few months ago now to illustrate the pitfalls of turning to google. A supermarket in Wales was re-doing all its signage above the aisles and one of the new categories it had to put up a sign for in Welsh as well as English was alcohol free drinks. Well, the machine wasn’t very well up on the importance of word order and it turned out that the Welsh version said ‘free alcohol’ instead of ‘alcohol free’.

We can only shudder to think of what the infinitely more serious consequences might be if machines not people were doing the translation and interpreting for soldiers on deployment, or if algorithms rather than specialist linguists were listening in to what might be crucial detailed information about terrorists or people traffickers. (Coussins, 2022)



Positive about Languages – why there has never been a better time to be a linguist.

In-text: (Coussins, 2022)

Bibliography: Coussins, B., 2022. Positive about Languages – why there has never been a better time to be a linguist.. [online] Ciol.org.uk. Available at: <https://www.ciol.org.uk/positive-about-languages>

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