Putting a Smile on The Public Face of Languages

If you are a translator, interpreter, sociolinguist, anthropological linguist or any other kind of linguist, there is a lot to get annoyed about. Courses are closing, rates are (in places) dropping, respect is on the wane and hardly a day goes by without some newspaper publishing a story about some new gadget that will entirely automate some way we use language. If we didn’t know better, we would say we were all going to be out of our jobs by Christmas.

True, there is a lot to complain about. True, due to something fundamental about the nature of social media (or should that be “human nature”?) negative posts and comments will get more views than positive ones. But does that make it right?

I write this post as either a complete hypocrite or a reformed addict, depending on how you see it. I have written some negative and sarcastic posts in my time. Yet nowadays, I often wonder whether we might actually be shooting ourselves in the foot if we are too quick to react with negativity.

Back near the beginning of the blog, I wrote a post calling for us to start changing the public face of languages. Late last year, I reprised the same theme and appealed for linguists to start demonstrating the value in what we do by showing exactly what we add to society. Today, I want to bring back the same theme again but with what might be a more personal challenge. Are we portraying a positive or negative view of life as a professional linguist?

If you are a 16 or 18 year old choosing what career you will train for, I think you would be looking, at least partially, for a career where people seem positive about what they do. Surely, aside from purely economic calculations, people want to have a job they will enjoy, among people who are helpful and friendly.

Now, to be absolutely fair, I must say at this point that the vast majority of linguists I have worked with, at all stages of my career have been friendly, happy and passionate about their work. Part of what makes this industry so great to work in is that you will come across some truly amazing and inspiring people.

Sadly, that image of careers in the language sectors is not always the one portrayed in the press and even, I hate to say it, by linguists themselves. Often, in our justifiable and even justified need to fight for a cause, educate clients, improve practice, etc, we forget to sell the positives too. Yes, some clients don’t behave the way they should but surely the good ones deserve as much (if not more) publicity as the bad ones. Yes, there are unfair contracts and court interpreters are often mistreated but surely the examples of professional court interpreters giving a superb service are as worthy of collection as instances where interpreters have failed to show up and do a good job.

Perhaps even our most justified campaigns for better treatment, more funding, less course closures and the like would be even more powerful if gave as much space to positive examples as we did to negative ones.  To those who say that closing language courses is “what everyone is doing”, we can say, that, actually no, universities like Heriot-Watt are creating courses and hiring more staff. To those who say that interpreting is a wasteful expense, we can say, no, interpreters have always played a vital role in delivering fair, just trials, and economic growth.

Some of the most powerful cases we can put for the value of languages come from the places where languages have made a positive difference. Some of the greatest arguments for the value of our work come from stories of happy clients, treated patients, and bestselling books. Maybe we need to work even harder at putting a smile on our public face.

Author: Jonathan Downie

2 thoughts on “Putting a Smile on The Public Face of Languages

  1. I like the “complete hypocrite or reformed addict” line. One of the things that makes me at heart hopeful about humanity is our ability to revise our point of view based on new information and thoughtful consideration. So I think you’re a reformed addict ;). And I love your call for a focus on the way language can materially affect people’s lives for the positive. There’s nothing as rewarding as feeling that one’s work does some kind of good in the world, I think.

  2. Well said Jonathan. There is downward pressure in every industry/job at the moment (just listening to my son, niece and friend discussing their respective jobs this week). At least we can try to do something about it that many employees can’t.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s