Languages: Minding your languages

Modern languages have been sidelined in the current education system, yet the European Union can offer a multitude of career opportunities to talented linguists. By John Izbicki
Click to follow
FLUENCY IN a modern foreign language and the ability to translate it into English has become the passport to well-paid employment. Despite the cynicism displayed by some politicians about the European Union, its growth and development have given linguists further strength and status. To have allowed modern languages to become a shortage subject, along with mathematics and science, must be chalked up as one of the major catastrophes of the current education system. It has certainly done nothing to improve Britain's reputation as a nation of lazy linguists.

Some universities and colleges have even found it necessary to axe single language courses and amalgamate them into an all-embracing "modern languages unit". Jane McAdoo, of the European Languages department at Goldsmiths' College, London University, who specialises in French and the Renaissance, fears that modern languages are under real threat. "There is a high drop- out rate at A-levels and the number of potential linguists is reducing all the time. German has reached crisis point, and universities are now taking on hourly paid native speakers, many without any real knowledge of the culture behind the language," Ms McAdoo said.

Luckily, some notable exceptions are to be found. And at postgraduate level there are some veritable oases in this linguistic desert. Goldsmiths' itself provides an attractive intercollegiate MA in German and Spanish (along with such London University colleges as Birkbeck and Royal Holloway) and, from September, it will even offer a master's degree in cultural memory.

Canterbury Christ Church College has sealed a partnership with the Universite du Littoral, just across the Channel at Boulogne. This has been the first year of a joint course rewarding students not only with a Postgraduate Certificate in Education, but also with a French Maitrise FLE - a master's degree in French as a foreign language.

Shirley Lawes, senior lecturer at Christ Church's department of education and tutor for this innovative course, firmly believes it will help to remedy the shortfall of language teachers in Britain. The French also find it tempting. "Teaching in Britain is a good career opportunity for them. And the prospect of gaining a higher degree in one year is attractive," Ms Lawes said.

Another fascinating initiative is the MA in European Public Policy being run jointly by South Bank University and the Faculte de Leonardo da Vinci in Paris. This course combines a bilingual approach with job placements and means spending one semester in London and one in Paris, with visits to other EU institutions. Past graduates have been snapped up by such business giants as KPMG, Ernst & Young, France Telecom, FNAC and Mission Europe.

From September, Middlesex University will offer the Institute of Linguists' much-coveted Diploma in Public Service Interpreting in both Spanish and Turkish, preparing people to work as interpreters in the health and local government sectors. The university already runs a successful master's degree in translation studies which prepares students for careers as professional translators.

At Anglia Polytechnic University, the linguistically talented can take an MA in European language and intercultural studies - students here are said to become more alert to linguistic and cultural assumptions held by European trading partners. And at Lancaster University, a flexible MA in modern languages research concentrates on French, German, Italian or Spanish (or a combination of these) and involves in part the principles of style and translation theory as applied to literary, dramatic, film and other texts.

Now, you'll have heard those simultaneous translations at United Nations assemblies and other conferences. The University of Westminster, which has an MA in bilingual translation, also provides a postgraduate course designed to help prospective professional interpreters face their ordeal. Its diploma in conference interpreting techniques is believed to be the only one in the country recognised by the International Association of Conference Interpreters and those awarded the diploma lose little time in finding work.

The University of Leeds has gone even further. Its new MA in applied translation studies (Maats) has introduced some revolutionary software. A 20-credit module has been designed to help students apply computerised tools to translation. The computer provides some sophisticated aids that are far more than a glorified dictionary.

There is an Aladdin's cave of goodies, including an online "Language Hub", centralising textual and glossary resources in 165 languages ranging from Afrikaans to Zulu (www.arthurint. com/translate.htm); and a European Parliament's terminology base covering the EU administrative field in 12 languages ( 4712/MTW_LOGON/).

Leeds' Maats course has expanded from just 19 students two years ago to 40, including 13 from overseas, this year. "Of course, we cannot guarantee employment, but our Maats graduates are certainly far more employable and quite a few have been given jobs even before they finish the course," said Professor Michael Holman, head of modern languages and cultures at Leeds.

Not everyone ends up as a translator. Anthony Oliver, who took an MA in translation studies at Warwick University, is a contented alumni officer at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education. And then there's journalism. But that's another story.