Foreign languages’ enrichment of English

Most professional translators, linguaphiles by definition, will no doubt be aware of the fact that the languages from and into which they are translating contain many loan words and borrowed terms from other languages. The relatively high proportion of English words which have been infiltrating the French language over recent decades causes much uproar among members of the Académie française, the institution designed to protect the French language from ‘degradation’, but the use of words from one language by speakers of another is in fact a natural aspect of a language’s development, and something not to be derided. Rather than impoverishing a language, using words and terms from another language enriches the stock of words at one’s disposal and can also open people’s minds to the contributions of other cultures.


The BBC recently published an illuminating article exploring the surprising number of foreign words which are now used by English-speakers, and indeed readily accepted as being part of the English tongue. In the article entitled: ‘Does English still borrow words from other languages?’ (published on the 3rd February 2014), Philip Durkin, the deputy chief editor of the Oxford English dictionary and author of Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English noted that English has over centuries been enriched by hundreds of different foreign words. He cites several examples of words we all use in everyday speech which were originally ‘borrowed’ from another language: ‘famous, foreign, languages, use and taken are […] borrowed words’, Durkin writes, as well as more obviously ‘borrowed’ words such as sushi (a word first used in English at the end of the nineteenth century). An understanding of these cultural and linguistic layers which make up the English language can be very beneficial, as Durkin notes: ‘Knowledge of what is being borrowed, and from where, provides an invaluable insight into the international relations of the English language.’

English has borrowed many words from French, Latin and the Scandinavian languages, due in part to the way the British Isles were invaded. Durkin notes that the words ‘peace, war, just or very’ came into English from French, while ‘leg, sky, take or they’ were Scandinavian loan words. Conversely, England’s role as coloniser in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that many words of South Asian origin, such as jungle, yoga and khaki, also came to be part of the English tongue, writes Durkin. The language we speak today therefore bears the traces of the UK’s idiosyncratic history. Durkin states that English is now borrowing fewer and fewer foreign words as it becomes the international language of science, business and technology. Other languages are now borrowing words from English, hence the concern of the French about the increased infiltration of English words. The BBC article concludes: ‘Borrowings affecting other areas of the vocabulary typically follow the pathways of power and prestige between languages. English today may, for once, be more of a lender than a borrower. If we try to look decades or centuries into the future, who knows?’

Thus, we can see that while the common perception is that coming into daily contact with foreign languages is the province of professional translators, this is not strictly the case: when speaking English (or indeed any other language) in our day-to-day lives, we are (often unknowingly) coming into contact with words from other languages, and contributions from other cultures which can only serve to enrich our own.



Language Study Continues to Decline

The world of professional translating and interpreting could see a drop in the number of native English speakers qualified to enter its midst if current trends in the study of languages in the UK continue.

The professional translation and interpreting world needs not only fluent speakers of the world’s languages, but also those with a native command of different languages. Most professional translation agencies require the translator to have  a native command of the language into which they are translating, which is not the same thing as fluency in a language. For example, if one is fluent in German, one will generally be seen as having a sufficient ability to read and understand the nuances of the language to be able to translate out of it, but of course translation (or interpretation) is a two-way process, and one needs a language to translate into. Generally, a native command of this language is necessary: even if one understands every word of a language, it is surprisingly difficult to translate perfectly into this language if it is not one’s mother tongue.


There is no reported shortage of non-native English speakers who can translate from English into their own languages, but there is growing concern about the number of native English speakers who have a sufficiently fluent command of foreign languages to be able to undertake the essential task of translating from another language into their native English.

Google ‘Decline in UK foreign language-study’ or any other related terms, and numerous links to alarmist articles about the drop in the study of languages in the UK pop up. The decline in those studying foreign languages can be seen at all levels of education. Most recently, Oxford University languages professor Katrin Kohl has written in the Guardian about the drop in those choosing to study languages at university (‘Universities must make languages relevant’, The Guardian, 16th April 2014). Similar views can be found, among many others, in the Guardian’s article of 8th October 2013, entitled ‘Modern languages: degree courses in free fall’ and that of 7th October 2013, entitled ‘European language degree courses abandoned by many UK universities’.

A significant number of those who read for a Modern Languages degree can on to become professional translators or interpreters, but with a dearth of students choosing to read a degree in languages in the first place, the professional translation sector suffers from the lack of qualified, native English translators and interpreters.

Kohl believes the current crisis in language study in higher education is due to the lack of government funding and the misguided strategies of policy makers. It is also surely due to a very British arrogance about the position of the UK on the world stage, and the English language’s status as the global tongue. As the professional translation industry’s need for native English speakers with a fluent command of other languages shows, it is not enough to smugly wallow in the knowledge that a large proportion of the world’s population speaks English as a first or second language; however widespread the command of English becomes, English native speakers who speak other languages fluently will always be in demand. It is a sad state of affairs if today’s undergraduates are too short-sighted to notice this.