Translations: A sure-fire investment for the future

I’m 52 years old today (… why thank you – it’s all that clean living) but, I can still recall the classroom dust motes, the smell of polish and wood, and the pain and anguish, 40 odd years ago, as I sat there, utterly baffled by French pronunciation, Latin cases and German just about everything.

However, I was a chatterbox, so I persevered (about as much as I’ve ever persevered at anything, anyway) and languages became my life’s work. Sort of.

So, the announcement that Heriot-Watt University – ranked top for languages in Scotland – is thinking seriously about closing its Modern Languages department due to lack of funding comes as a disappointment … but no surprise.

Covid-19 has not so much created new problems but exposed existing weaknesses.

The study of languages in the UK has been on the back foot for a while now and so a lack of foreign, fee-paying students to even our best-performing universities might be the final straw.

Obviously, this is not the root of the problem. This stems from the announcement, back in 2004, that the study of languages was no longer compulsory at school in England.

Sadly, the moment any subject that is slightly difficult is no longer an absolute must, kids, parents and school staff will drop it like a stone. It’s human and entirely understandable (there was very little fuss when boring old poetry was dropped last week from this year’s Eng Lit GCSEs).

Even more sadly, and utterly at odds with the usual story trotted out that we are bad at languages in the UK, we’re actually very good at them. This is seen at the sharp end: for example, in banking, language degrees are prized over technical qualifications (in the words of one prominent banker I spoke to, ‘we can teach the maths, not the languages’).

My industry, translation, is currently worth over 50 billion USD a year, worldwide, and is set to grow to over 100 billion USD by 2030. And the UK arguably leads the way both in market share and reputation.

All this will be lost if we don’t do something sharpish.

A relatively paltry £9 million will save the modern languages department in Heriot-Watt. On a broader scale, spending £1 billion now on a new generation of British linguists would, almost certainly, produce huge returns in investment at a time when our young people could sorely use jobs and futures.

As Lucretius said:

ex nihilo nihil fit 

Nothing comes from nothing.



An effort to keep up interest has been made by way of teaching a wider range of languages such as Mandarin and Arabic and the linguist in me likes that. The businessman, not so much. Sticking to the basics has been my experience in language services: if you speak fluent German and English (for example) you’ll never be out of work. Ever. Ditto, French to a very slightly lesser extent. If you’re learning a language for anything other than pleasure, the rule is, follow the money, not the number of speakers.

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