My tailor is rich… but my English is poor

The little kid is sitting on the ground, staring at his knees. He is shy, I am told. Does not like to speak to strangers. Cannot really speak French.

Since the parents separated, the mother moved back to the German speaking part of Switzerland. “The school counselor told me I have to stop confusing him by speaking my dialect. So now I have to speak only French when he visits and then he goes to school in German.” He looks sad but eager to do the right thing for his child.

His ‘dialect’? Bambara. An actual language, spoken by up to 15 million people in Mali and several neighbouring countries. A language with a rich literary tradition, maintained over centuries through griots. The language of a an ancient kingdom. The reason he should refrain to speak it in order not to confuse the child? Swiss German.

“Actually, I thought Swiss German is a dialect, while Bambara is a language…” He laughs at my observation. He laughs because he understands the implications. He laughs because he had not looked at things that way. He laughs because he realises that how we value languages is essentially a matter of perspective. And from my perspective, my tailor is rich.

Just like my tailor, thousands of parents whose mother tongue does not have the required economic, cultural or political capital refrain from communicating with their own children in the language that is closest to their heart and encapsulates their being. I have observed this in practice among diasporic communities in Europe (whether Congolese, Cameroonian, or Vietnamese) and among elites in capitals of the “Global South”.

The issue is far from straightforward. Western linguists are often eager to promote the use of African languages (in Africa), for example in primary education. There is of course a case to be made for educating children in a language they actually understand (duh…). I can imagine the uphill battle primary school teachers are facing in countries that try to enforce English or French as official language of instruction from grade one. The puzzled faces of first graders who understand nothing the lady in front of the blackboard is telling them. Who are told off when asking a question in the language they can speak and that they know their teacher understands. Hopefully by week two they get the basics and by month three they can repeat sentences. Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o describes this eloquently in his Decolonising the Mind. The language of the home, the language of school, the language of the self and of otherness.

I can furthermore imagine the plight of primary school teachers who, sometimes from one day to the next, are told that the language of instruction is now “mother tongue”. How to translate the teaching materials from English into Dholuo or Maasai? Hey lady, we never said teaching was an easy job. You just take care of it. Acha kulalamika.

Mother tongue education is one of these things where we as Europeans tend to make quick judgements, based on our own intuition of linguistic rights and wrongs. Of course children should be instructed in their mother tongue. Of course one needs to promote minority languages. How can this even be controversial? And yet, in today’s Sub-Saharan Africa, the intuitive answer is not always the right one. In today’s economy, native speakers of German and native speakers of Kikamba do not have the same opportunities. Not all mother tongues are created equal. A good mastery of English or French will open doors that remain shut to those who “only” master endogenous African languages. Sometimes the difference between those in managerial positions and those in long-term unemployment boils down to what they speak and how they pronounce it. Where English is a source of considerable symbolic capital, Received Pronunciation is the cherry on top. While this is not a good thing, it is a reality for millions of people.

In order to gradually change this state of affairs, the promotion of language diversity and mother tongue instruction makes sense. Not surprisingly, many governments have been promoting exactly this. At individual level, however, those parents who have the possibility (i. e. the money) to choose will decide to send their child to the kind of school that they think offers her or him the best opportunities. Individuals want to survive in the society they live in, not in a Utopian future that might materialize but probably never will. More often than not, the very same ministers who promote mother tongue education in rural areas send their children to expensive private schools where English (or French) is the only language of instruction. Mother tongue education and minority languages for the poor, international curricula with instruction in large languages for the rich. The language game obeys the same rules than many phenomena, well understood by any scholar who studies society: the interests of the individual and those of the group often run counter to each other.

In the West, we read statistics such as “One language dies every two weeks” and we are convinced that something should really be done about this. We read that people are losing their traditions, and we feel concerned. And yet, human beings everywhere in the world strive for happiness and a better life for their children. While we are wedded to our respective culture and tradition, we are often willing to embrace new languages, new religions and new ideologies in order to enjoy better living conditions. In the age of cultural relativism, we sometimes tend to forget that, while all cultures are fundamentally valuable in their own right, structural inequalities mean that, from a very pragmatic point of view, different cultures have different market values.

In today’s world, my tailor will be rich if his English is not poor.

Nevertheless, language mastery is a not a binary, it is not 1 or 0. As has been argued for instance by Borchgrevink (2003), a limited mastery of a language can already make a great difference in helping us to establish trust, build relationships, become part of a group. While perfect mastery of all languages present in a family or city is not a realistic goal in most contexts, artificially limiting a child’s exposure to a language that would normally be present in their environment strikes me as equally impractical.

The question of mother tongue vs. official language might best be answered with a question: “Why not both?

*If you do not understand the title of this post, click here: Arte Carambolage – My Tailor is Rich

Cited References:

Borchgrevink, A. (2003), ‘Silencing language: Of anthropologists and interpreters’, Ethnography 4(1), 95-121.

10 Things to Consider for Interpreter Training in Africa

I wrote my doctoral dissertation about a North-South cooperation project in the field of interpreter training and the challenges that actors experienced, and I see the many difficulties actors still encounter in setting up interpreter training programmes in different universities in Africa. Therefore, I have distilled the results of my research into ten points of advice for anyone who wants to teach in/set up an interpreter training programme in Africa or anyone planning to collaborate with an African university.

It really all boils down to one key point: Rely on the right combination of local expertise and outside help!

1. Be inclusive

Before setting up a new programme or engaging in a new partnership, get the relevant stakeholders around the table and use their collective knowledge to chart the best way forward. This seems obvious but is often overlooked and therefore deserves a mention at the top of this list. Your relevant stakeholders are the parties who are likely to know something that you don’t, for example local interpreters, professional associations (AIIC, etc.), academics from other disciplines (translation, foreign languages, …), international organizations based in the region or other potential employer organizations.

It makes sense to include representatives of foreign interpreting schools, since they know how to insert interpreter training into a university environment. But this should not happen at the expense of local interpreters, who are in a much better position to understand what is required on their market.

2. Bend existing rules or write your own

Universities are highly bureaucratic, and sometimes in very unexpected ways. In some universities the names of course units on the curriculum have to be unique for Master’s programmes, so labels such as “Simultaneous interpreting I” and “Simultaneous interpreting II” or even “Intermediate simultaneous” and “Advanced simultaneous” are not allowed. Since students cannot learn simultaneous interpreting in a single course unit, curriculum building can be a surprisingly creative exercise and involve a good thesaurus. Another issue are oral exams: some departments have no rules and regulations in place for these, since they are not relevant in their discipline. Similarly, there might not be any provisions for an entrance exam and this is not something that jury members should find out about only on the day of said exam!

Another area of conflict is the recruitment of trainers. Rather than traditional academic criteria (a doctorate, published research, teaching experience), universities need to apply criteria that are relevant for interpreting (professional experience, active and passive languages) for recruitment. Working with professional interpreters also means that flexible and part-time arrangements might be necessary. These solutions are complicated to put in place in public universities in Africa but they are worth it!

The university environment was not designed for the sole purpose of providing an adequate context for interpreter training (we sometimes tend to forget that…). Therefore, the persons in charge of interpreting courses must learn to work within the system, bending existing rules and pushing for new ones. In most disciplines, academics “give lectures” to as many students as can possible fit in the auditorium (and sometimes more!). Students might not show up during the whole semester and simply take the written exam at the end, which they might even pass if they have done their reading. Interpreting is a very different animal: it involves practice, direct trainer-to-student interaction and also… booths?

3. Master the art of boothlegging

Interpreter training is obviously impossible without booths and simultaneous interpreting consoles… or is it? As interpreting students we “boothlegged” our own simultaneous interpreting installation. To practice simultaneous interpreting, all you actually need is a computer/tablet/smartphone, a pair of headphones with an integrated microphone, audio recordings and the free software “Audacity”. This simple setup allows students to listen to an original speech while simultaneously recording their interpretation over the original (that’s where Audacity comes in).

I am not saying that universities should not try to invest in good interpreting equipment. But much more important than physical infrastructure is having the right human resources. Simultaneous interpreting can be done without any kind of equipment (chuchotage/whispered interpretation). But it cannot be done without skills!

4. Choose the right languages

Students in Geneva, Prague, Accra and Nairobi might be trained in the same skill, but they are likely to have very different language combinations that will lead them to work on very different markets. The training programme in Geneva is geared heavily towards the UN and EU institutional market, as well as the private market in Switzerland, while interpreters trained in Prague are prepared almost exclusively to work for the European institutions. Of course, language combinations also need to be covered by trainers, otherwise a degree will end up not having much credibility.

Not all language combinations are relevant for conference interpreting. Swahili/English, for instance, is much more likely to be required in a court or community interpreting setting in Kenya than at an international conference. This is even more the case for local languages: Africa needs community and court interpreters for Dholuo, Twi and Sesotho.Remember that conference interpreting is not the only skill worth teaching, nor is it necessarily the most relevant!

5. Identify your market

While students might choose to read Philosophy and History for their general intellectual edification, they generally choose interpreting because they want to learn a profession and later practice it. This point should be fairly uncontroversial but unfortunately it is not. Amongst academics, the idea that universities should cater to a (real or hypothetical) job market hits a sore spot and, while I fully agree that Higher Education should do much more than that, this argument is of limited relevance to interpreter training. Our course are professional training courses. They should prepare students to work on a specific market. This is particularly true in contexts where students are paying for their education from their own pockets and make considerable personal and professional sacrifices to attend classes, often while already in full employment.

6. Learn each other’s language

Academics are strange. When they say “read a paper” they really mean “give a presentation”. They like to complain about “peer reviews” and those with a PhD might insist to be called “Doctor” although they are not physicians. Interpreters, on the other hand, value eloquence but will forgive lack of it in a “C language”, the only “peer review” that counts for them is who sponsored you to become a member of AIIC. Oh, and they like to refer to people as if they were furniture: “Oh you mean Fernando, but isn’t he a Spanish booth?”

Both groups need to become reasonably fluent in the “language” of the respective other. Interpreters must learn what is expected in academia, what constraints this environment places on them, and what opportunities it offers. Academics have to understand what makes interpreting different from other discilines, what matters to professional interpreters, and what awaits their students once they graduate. Interpreters might not see the point in asking students to write a Master’s thesis, while academics might think that practice does not make prefect. Compromise and mutual respect are essential for good collaboration between academics and interpreters, and even more so in the case of North-South cooperation.

7. Use practice to become a professional

A master’s course is usually a rather dry and theoretical affair and this is therefore of particular importance: Interpreter training has to comprise a large practical component! You simply cannot become a good interpreter just by reading books! However, when I say “practice” I don’t just mean any kind of practice. A lot of thinking needs to go into curriculum design and recruitment of trainers. Ideally, all the languages in students’ combinations should be covered by trainers, so that each student can receive relevant feedback on their performance and progress accordingly. There are quite a number of things to take into account when selecting training materials, structuring classes and giving feedback. There are a number of manuals that can help trainers achieve this, the University of Geneva also offers an online training course for interpreter trainers. (URL).

8. Use theory to become an expert

While academics often need to be convinced of the value of practical course content, interpreters tend to see theory as superfluous in interpreter training. I partially agree with this claim: Not all theory is relevant. However, some of it is. A common misconception is that interpreters need to know a lot about linguistics. However, theories about skill acquisition and a general understanding of the different subskills involved in interpreting are much more relevant both for interpreter trainers and students. There is no perfect ratio of practical vs. theoretical content in an interpreter training programme. Based on my experiences as a trainer and researcher I think that 80% practice and 20% theory makes sense, provided practice grounded in a theoretical understanding of learning and skill acquisition.

9. Select your students with care

Yes, “Interpreters are made not born”. Nevertheless, it is wrong to assume that anyone can be transformed into an interpreter over the course of 12 to 24 months. Talent might play a certain role but, more importantly, students simply do not have enough time to learn their language and learn how to interpret all in the same degree. Therefore, students need to come in with a solid level of mastery of all their working languages and a good amount of world knowledge. For African students the A language is also generally not their “mother tongue”, so they might struggle with different aspects of language than students in Europe. During aptitude tests it is therefore important to include local interpreters who share the students’ language background.

Strict aptitude tests also mean that student intakes are small, i. e. that interpreter training courses will not be cash cows for universities, hence my next point.

10. Don’t be in it for the money

Yes, don’t —and this goes for institutions as well as interpreters. Public universities everywhere in the world and even more so in Africa struggle to make ends meet. As state funding declines, tuition fees increase and students are increasingly a source of revenue for universities. Good interpreter training is only possible when the number of students is low and the number of trainers high.

At the University of Geneva there are over 30 professional interpreters working as part-time trainers for about 12-18 students. This number is beyond what most universities in Africa will be able to afford but the good news is that the number of trainers required depends on the number of languages that are on offer. Experience shows that it is entirely possible to run a solid programme with a pool of 3-5 trainers.

This is also where North-South cooperation can provide real added value: an individual student with a language not covered by local trainers can for example benefit from online-tutoring; or trainers from another university can provide temporary pedagogical support at key stages of learning (introduction to note-taking, module on simultaneous with text, etc.).