Languages At Meetings

In your own language you say what you want, in a foreign language you say what you can

Delegates at international meetings frequently feel constrained to speak in English or remain silent. We interpreters are privileged observers of the language barriers that conference-English does not remove and in our professional lives witness the limits, discomfort and plain misunderstandings caused when people try to speak imperfectly mastered English.

The difficulty with any discussion about the exclusive use of English at international meetings is that nobody comes to the debate entirely neutral. Budget holders want to save money and interpreters are seen as having their own axe to grind in that they want the work.

English has risen to eminence because two factors combined: the lasting effect of the British Empire and the rise of American power since WWII. English has become the world’s lingua franca and everyone is expected to be able to speak it. And there’s the rub. Many people speak and understand it poorly (some are fully aware of their limitations) and so they are not at ease in what remains a foreign language, with its many expressions, accents, wayward prepositions and rich vocabulary. The scene is therefore set for misunderstanding and communication breakdown. We have to face the fact that the majority of people on the planet neither speak nor understand English.

We interpreters are by definition good at languages, yet would all opt to speak in our mother tongue if giving a presentation or speaking in public. In your own language you have resources that will never be available to you in another language. Conference organisers in the UK will often say that a delegate “speaks quite good English” but will fail to grasp that he or she is clearer in their own language.

We live in the age of the expert in which few would claim to excel in every subject. Language – that most fundamental of human activities – also requires the proper expert. In a court of law few would feel confident to stand up to argue their case, so they retain the services of an advocate to do so on their behalf. Companies call on the help of experts to market and promote their products, and again this is communication in the broad sense.

The non-expert tends to believe that languages are all about words so many non-native speakers of English simply substitute English words for those they would use in their own language, thereby ignoring the rules of English syntax and grammar with predictable results.

There is a pernicious idea that somehow English is the default language of discourse. It isn’t. There are whole swathes of the world where people run their affairs in another language. It’s easy to be swayed by the meretricious notion of direct communication, even though communication is frequently best served by people speaking their own language clearly and using interpreters.

Recently an international organisation asked participants at a meeting whether they wanted to keep their interpreters or move to English only. Opinions were divided, but interestingly the native English speakers favoured keeping the interpreters to avoid the opacity of poorly mastered English.

Organisers tend to think interpreters are expensive, but very often the cost per delegate will be less than they are spending on breakfast at the conference hotel. And it’s a lot cheaper than an unsuccessful conference.

Speakers at conferences even go so far so to apologise for speaking their own language or for their poor English, which they then insist on speaking regardless. It is hard for them to sound coherent and difficult for those listening to follow. A person at the conference may well have something important to say in the discussion, but they will not do so if they feel they are hampered by insufficient ease of expression in the conference language. The organiser won’t know because the delegates will just keep quiet. Nobody would reject an idea or suggestion from a delegate on the ground of sex, ethnicity or skin colour (the very thought shocks us) so it seems irrational to do so on the basis of language.