Posts Tagged ‘Foreign language’

How fluent do we really need to be?

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Retired Foreign Service Officer Ken Yates, writing at WhirledView, provides an interesting and well-reasoned take on the necessity of linguistic fluency to be an effective FSO. Despite passionate calls from the Hill and other places for more FSOs to be native in several languages, for Yates, it’s not feasible or reasonable to expect that the majority of FSOs will have the time or resources to become that fluent in one language, let alone several:

For me, training in Japanese, Korean, Dari, Icelandic and Mandarin Chinese, in that order, resulted not in approaching the desired level aspired to in Congressional speeches, yet it did help to sensitize me to the important cultural and personal understandings that were essential to developing and maintaining professional contacts.

[...] It soon became clear to me that just about all of my most important contacts had English competence far beyond what I could realistically hope to achieve in my scant months of study of their language. After all, many had studied English from their early school days, or even studied abroad. My linguistic struggles were more effective as an “icebreaker” than as a means to communicate substantively. When real substance was discussed, I found it essential to have a competent translator on hand. The advantages to that was a more formal discussion at a slower speed that could focus better on the issue at hand than on the imprecision resulting from my usually lesser competence in their language than they had in mine.

The full post is worth a read. Having studied a few languages myself, I would agree with Yates that “fluency” is a ridiculously tough thing to achieve—and it’s very subjective. I’ve had people, after seeing me speak in French or Chinese, comment, “Wow, you’re pretty fluent, huh?” I would shrug and say, oh so modestly, “Well, not really…” But the truth, of course, is that I’m not even close to fluent, in a professional sense, in either language. [Why do people think I'm fluent? Most likely because 1) they don't speak that language at all so don't have a frame of reference and 2) when I do speak my intermediate Chinese or my once-advanced but now intermediate French, I do so in a confident way that makes it seem like I really know what I'm doing.] Despite my lack of fluency, my language studies and skills have helped me in my career in, as Yates notes, cultural understanding and ice breaker type situations. But certainly in professional settings, especially when using Chinese, I’ve always, without question, relied on my counterparts to use English or on translators. 

So, getting back to the main issue, is it a bad thing if our FSOs aren’t native-level in several languages? Not necessarily, it seems. As Sherry noted in a discussion we had about this article and this topic, she has often thought that genuine curiosity and keen interest in learning about others (including their language) are even more critical to success than fluency in a language. Of course, she said, we want our FSOs to be as proficient in languages as possible—but other skills (such as cultural and historical understanding) are also essential. That’s not to say that we don’t want Americans studying languages to the point of native fluency—we certainly do. But it’s just to note that 1) it perhaps doesn’t need to be a requirement of all FSOs to be fully fluent in the language of the country in which they are serving; and 2) just because you aren’t fully fluent in a language doesn’t at all mean that the knowledge you do have of that language and the effort you’ve spent studying it is wasted.

Use your language skills—be a spy

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

While yesterday’s thought that language study is not just a means to an end (i.e., a job) still stands, if you’re good at Pashto, Dari, Urdu, or other less-commonly taught languages and want to do intelligence work, your study of a foreign language might well get you a job. The CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies could certainly use you.

How to convince your parents that studying/living abroad can actually help you get a job

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Smart Study Abroad says what I’ve long tried to convince my father of: that study abroad is not just about messing around in a foreign country but is also useful career prep (and not just for international careers but any career). Annie Everett from the University of Washington identifies three key skills she learned abroad that have helped her in her career progression: resourcefulness, exposure to cultural diversity, and redefining her idea of networking.

On a related note, Mauro Guillén at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. argues that languages aren’t just tools to achieve an end (as in, you study Chinese for the sole purpose of learning to speak, read, and research in Chinese) but rather something much more. Language study is, according to Guillén, a “fundamentally humbling process by which students learn that their culture and way of expressing it are relative, not absolute:”

Acquiring another language makes students better problem solvers, unleashing their ability to identify problems, enriching the ways in which they search and process information, and making them aware of issues and perspectives that they would otherwise ignore…

Learners of languages, by exposing themselves to other cultures and institutional arrangements, are more likely to see differences of opinion and conflicts by approaching a problem from perspectives that incorporate the values and norms of others as well as their own. Knowledge of other languages also fosters tolerance and mutual understanding. Language learning is thus much more than becoming operational in an environment different than one’s own. It is a powerful way of appreciating and respecting the diversity of the world.

These are all skills that employers (especially international exmployers) greatly value. Guillén also tackles the argument that an increasingly globalized world has cut out the need for language study.  Since “major multinational companies use English at their most important meetings,” why bother with anything but English? Because you severly limit your chances for success and promotion, says Guillén, if you don’t become proficient in the language of the country in which you’re working. “English proficiency may have become a necessary qualification for employment at most multinational organizations, but it is certainly not sufficient to pursue a successful professional career in an international context.”

By undermining the importance of learning other languages, we are losing an opportunity to educate our students to be better citizens of the world, and failing to provide them with the tools and mind-set they need to understand and solve complex problems.

All of these sound like arguments that might have worked pretty well on my dad back in the day.

Language fellowships for graduate students…

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

…are available via FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships), a Department of Education-sponsored program that provides fellowship allocations to IHEs (institutions of higher education) to assist grad students in foreign language and area or international studies. The IHE applies for the FLAS allocation, then you the grad student apply to your IHE for a summer or year-long fellowship. Check eligibility requirements on the website and talk to your school to see if they are FLAS-enabled.

[The Department of Ed also sponsors an Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program, but it looks like this is more of an institutional foreign language instruction capacity building program than a vehicle for awarding individual grants.]

UPDATE: A September 2008 report from the Department of Ed on the effectiveness of four of its grad fellowship programs, including FLAS. A summary of points on how FLAS fellowships affected participants’ careers:

—Nearly all fellows (92 percent) worked after completing their fellowships, and a majority of fellows (71 percent) worked in jobs that involved expertise they had gained through their FLAS-supported study. Nearly all fellows who reported working in a related job considered that job to be part of a career they were pursuing.

—Among fellows who had held at least one job related to the field they had studied with FLAS support, three-quarters of fellows worked in education, one-fifth in a U.S. private sector job, and one-fifth in foreign or international jobs. About one in nine worked for the military or other Government positions.

—Of fellows who had worked for pay since completing the fellowship, 68 percent worked in a job in which teaching was a major responsibility. These fellows had taught for an average of 3 years at the time of the survey, and 86 percent of them had taught in a field related to the FLAS-supported study.

—FLAS fellows believed that FLAS was very helpful in their degree completion and at least somewhat helpful in obtaining employment in a desired field. Over one-half reported that receiving a FLAS fellowship influenced their occupation and career choices.

“The world’s common language is broken English”

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009


Waiting for my sessions here at NAFSA to get going, I ponder the WashPost’s contemplation of the translation technology revolution: “How big a deal will it be to culture and society to have a cellphone that will allow you to talk to most of the world’s 6 billion people?”

To this day, if you want to get a translation absolutely right, go find yourself a talented human. “Nuclear power,” says Kevin Hendzel, a spokesman for the American Translators Association, when asked of areas where you want tremendously good human translation. “Negotiations for disarmament. The pharmaceutical industry. Zero-error work with millions of dollars” riding on the outcome. Hendzel has served as an interpreter on the presidential hot line.

The trouble with meticulous, culturally sensitive human translation, of course, is that it is slow, pricey and rare.

Suppose you are willing to settle for blazingly fast, cheap, “good enough” translations. Especially those aimed at languages spoken by the rich, multitudinous or dangerous. Enter the new generation of machine translators that in the last year have begun to open broad new vistas.

It seems like there are many situations in which fast, “good enough” translations would be benficial: combat/conflict zone situations and the translation of web content to make it more broadly accessible to users of many varying languages, to name two. But would having a cell phone that can translate any language on the fly be a good thing, from a cultural exchange standpoint? It would certainly make some situations abroad easier (i.e., trying to hack out the details of a cab ride or a market negotiation in an unfamiliar language), but that might in turn deprive us of some of the best experiences abroad—those awkward, difficult, but often enlightening cultural-linguistic encounters. How many students studying abroad would increasingly use their cell phone as a crutch instead of really learning the language of their host country? How many vacationers abroad would use their phone rather than hack out even rudimentary phrases?

Like every new technology, we’ll adapt and figure it out. But this particular technology seems to have some pretty far-reaching implications, both positive and negative, for our fields.

For all the language lovers out there

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Lexiophiles has you covered.

Turning a love for language into a career

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

An intriguing profile in the Wall Street Journal of Paula Shannon, who started her career with the language firm Berlitz International and is now an executive at Lionbridge Technologies, “a global firm based in Waltham, Mass., that provides international companies with translation services in over 100 languages.”

Two things from the profile that stuck out for me. One: even though Paula was having trouble getting her foot in the door, she jammed it in there anyway:

I researched the company when I was looking to enter the language translation industry after college and (at first) could not get an interview for the management trainee program locally. So I (reached out to) a senior vice president in New York and asserted that my profile was perfect for their program. I guess he agreed.

And two: her career path, like most everyone else’s, has not been straight and planned:

Never worried about taking detours and accepting lateral moves.