I remember it vividly. One of my least favourite classes during my Masters degree in Translation and Conference Interpreting took place in the university’s engineering building. Just before we filed into our tutorial, I would look down to the materials lab below, with its organised chaos of machinery, including a crash test truck, and I would wonder if I couldn’t have done something more exciting and practical with my year.
Similar thoughts must have crossed the minds of many students over the years. Across the UK, the number of pupils taking secondary school exams in languages is at its lowest point for decades. As the likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Space-X illustrate the power of engineering and computer science, it’s harder than ever to convince teenagers of the virtues of learning the minutiae of French grammar. The task takes on Sisyphean proportions when the newspapers are full of headlines about this or that device that claims to instantly translate from one language to another.
STEM Skills and the Missing ‘Soft’ Link
Yet despite the exceptional PR of the denizens of STEM, it’s a mistake to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths as if they alone could solve our societal issues. Worse still, when we begin to think that STEM expertise can make up for a lack of knowledge of languages and cultures, we begin to lead pupils and students alike into a ditch.
Allow me to illustrate with a story.
During one interpreting assignment, I was in a room with several engineers, their Chief Executive and a senior purchasing manager from a French company. The brief was simple, the British company wanted to land a deal with the French company and the French company wanted to buy their products.
Cue two days of technical discussions over manufacturing standards, delivery costs, capacity and the like. On the afternoon of the second day, things got a bit difficult. Suddenly, the French buyer was getting annoyed that the British company were evading what he thought was a simple question. For their part, the Brits were getting ticked that the French buyer kept asking the same question over and over again. They all stood up and left the room, the stamp along corridors and poke at charts on the walls.
And then, suddenly, it was as if a lightbulb went off in my head. While the Chief Executive of the British company spoke good French and the French buyer certainly had excellent English, what no-one in that corridor realised was that the deal was hitting the skids simply because they were measuring the same thing in opposite ways. After a short explanation from me and a return to the negotiating room, the Technical Director pulled up some stats from an Excel sheet and presented it to the Buyer. Two hours later, both sides had agreed a pre-contract agreement and if the British company were as good as their promises, they were sitting on a deal worth millions.
The technology was what made the product; a swift bit of linguistic, cultural and social awareness from the interpreter was what made the deal. And that’s how it usually is. STEM skills are key to creating wonderful products but without Languages, those shiny products sit on a shelf and gather dust.
The UK must Reform its Bad View of Languages
Perhaps the biggest reason why STEM experts often don’t understand the need to embed foreign language expertise early on in education is that in the UK, we have a bad view of languages. Aside from the oft-repeated mantra that “everyone speaks English”, we often make the mistake of equating language with vocabulary. Since Google Translate can handle that (more or less), we reason that learning languages will do us no good.
No interpreter would be happy with that view of languages. Comparatively little of our work involves knowing the French word for “kettle” or the German for “alight here for Kelvingrove Gallery.” We spend much more time learning about the style and phrases used habitually by speakers, inculcating the goals of the events at which we work, understanding how to deal with tricky intercultural issues and taking difficult decisions on how and when to summarise, add explanations or omit redundant information.
For an interpreter, language is more than vocabulary. Often, knowing someone’s native language will give you an insight into how they might think and knowing their cultural background can tell you a lot about how they work. Most interpreters can explain how events can go sour simply because people didn’t understand the importance of building up relationships before jumping in for the deal in many cultures or how jokes that seem natural in the UK can be viewed as utterly inappropriate elsewhere.
When you learn languages, you meet cultures. When you meet cultures, you learn behaviour. When you learn behaviour, you can start to create a better world. It sounds utopian but the marketplace is littered with glorious technological failures that completely misunderstood human behaviour. Nuclear powered boats might seem like a wonderful way of extending cruises but the stark refusal of most ports to let them dock, never mind refuel, has meant that they are restricted to military use. A cursory search of the annals of any patent office in the world will tell similar stories.
The truth is that still, the majority of the world’s population does not speak English and with the increasing might of the Chinese economy and the fast growth of Spanish in the USA, the reign of English as the world’s trade language might be coming to an end. For our current pupils and students to find a way to thrive in our increasingly diverse world, they will not only need to understand how to code and deal with machines, they will need the cultural awareness and soft skills that are best gained by studying languages, preferably with some time spent outside of the English-speaking world.