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.