THE BLOG

Languages Are Sick

12/02/2014 12:04 GMT | Updated 13/04/2014 10:59 BST

The Winter Olympics in Sochi have provided many an occasion for emotion; from tears at Britain's first medal, thanks to Jenny Jones, to heart-in-mouth gasps at pretty much any move executed on the rails in slopestyle events. For a language geek like me, it's also been really interesting to read, either on social media or regular news outlets, about the difficulties the Games have caused on the language front.

"Stoked", "sick" and "solid" are three little words that momentarily stumped the volunteer interpreters who were tasked with relaying reactions from the snowboarding stars. It's not that these interpreters aren't good at their jobs - on the contrary, they're dealing with simultaneous interpretation, in a pressurised, time-critical situation, with the world's media breathing down their necks. On another language (bum) note, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have been inundated with photos of poorly translated menus, apparently providing more in the way of puns on Russia's anti-gay agenda, than details of the food on offer. Setting aside the fact that many of these photos are fakes, (often not actually taken in Russia, let along Sochi) I'd love to ask anyone who's having a good old laugh at them, "Could you do any better?" I'm guessing the majority of people in the UK would have as much luck translating even one flavour of мороженое as they would at landing a 1620.

The English speaking world is, by and large, quite happy to poke fun at a mistranslated word here, or a breakdown in communication there, perhaps thinking that little or no effort has gone into it. In my line of work, it's sometimes helpful (not to mention tempting) to point out shortcomings in translations and thus underline the importance of culturally and contextually appropriate language to any business. The Lost for Words report, which investigated the current level of language capacity in the Government (and found it to be similarly lacking) seems to suggest that our national disregard for languages goes all the way to the top.

What seems to bypass many people's consciousness is that not being able to communicate with people effectively in a language that isn't English doesn't just make us look ignorant when we treat "foreigners" as if they have a hearing impairment rather than a different mother tongue, it also puts us at a distinct disadvantage. This disadvantage can be as minor as getting the wrong coffee at Starbucks in Switzerland (unlikely, seeing as around 60% of the population speak English) or as major as your company losing out on a deal, because your sales guy made a crack about "everyone speaking English anyway" when the potential for translating marketing material was floated. So we're not just on the back foot socially, our competitive advantage on the global business stage starts to erode too.

Think about it like this: if you're looking at a hotel website and it's not in English, do you book it? Or do you book a different one with a website that's available en anglais? If you picked option 2, that doesn't mean you're a Philistine, or xenophobic, it just means you're happier when you understand all the details. Don't you think that your (potential) international counterparts in the business world feel the same? When you see that reassuring tab with "English" on it, knowing that it will magically transform the website, aren't you pleased that the hotel owner cared enough to translate it? Or, for the more pragmatic amongst us, aren't you glad you know exactly where your £150 is going to? It's the same the world over - whether you're a diplomat dealing with matters of global significance or a manager who's thinking of expanding into other markets, if you can communicate with others in their language it shows that you have the wit and the wherewithal to look outside yourself, at the world at large.

But translation of documents, menus and websites is getting way ahead of ourselves - in the UK we seem to be lacking the resources to do language related tasks in the first place, and by resources I mean people who speak the languages. The decline in language learning isn't anything new - although, if we're going to tackle it our approach needs to be. We need to emphasise the career possibilities which are open to those who undertake a language and make it clear that speaking another language is something that is valued. Our language courses need to focus on language fluency, perhaps by other subjects being taught in the language, thus killing two birds with the one Rosetta stone, so to speak. Starting to learn them a bit earlier wouldn't exactly hurt either. We already make such an effort to raise global citizens, children of the world - let's now make sure their voices can be heard, and understood.