Jacolyn Harmer presenter at the May GM.

Jacolyn Harmer, presenter at the May General Meeting.

While technology skills are increasing among the young, critical thinking is taking a hit. BY NAOMI NORBERG

On a Saturday afternoon so beautiful it didn’t bode well for high turnout, NCTA members showed their dedication by showing up in significant numbers for the May 7 general meeting in downtown San Francisco. The meeting began as usual with a welcome session for new members (six or seven this time) and networking among the rest. Our new president Paula Dieli then began the meeting by introducing the new “refreshment queens” Connie Archea and Rita McGaughy, and thanking ION Translations, LLC of Berkeley for sponsoring the refreshments.

Kristen Corridan then announced the upcoming events and workshops, including the summer picnic (June 26th), the Legal Translation for Court Interpreters and Translators workshop (June 18th), and a workshop (no date given) by Tuomas Kostianen on preparing for the ATA certification exam (next San Francisco sitting on July 31st, just before the FIT conference). Paula then announced the arrival of the latest Translorial, and Yves Avérous asked for volunteers to replace Nina Bogdan, who will step down in September after three years as Translorial editor. Roles will be split so that those who want to deal with the writing aspect can do that while others take on administrative and logistic tasks. Kristen then introduced Jacolyn Harmer, who spoke to us about Shifting Trends in Translator and Interpreter Training.

Linguists of the future

A practicing freelance conference interpreter and translator for 35 years with impressive credentials, Jacolyn described herself as someone who came to the Monterey Institute (MI) because she loves teaching and helping people avoid mistakes. She is constantly seeking ways to develop better curricula and teaching methods. With the caveat that she is “not very good at numbers,” with the most recent ones from 2008-9, and that much of her presentation was based on speaking with her colleagues, Jacolyn gave us an overview, fleshed out with some language-specific details, of who the translators and interpreters of the future are and how their training is changing.

Figures gleaned from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages indicate that in 2008, while there was an increase of .5% in the number of high school students learning foreign languages throughout the United States, 33% of them were clustered in just 4 states—California, Texas, New York and Florida—with Pennsylvania making it 40% in 5 states. And despite the overall increase, 17 states (mostly in the northeast) lost students, with Washington, DC losing a whopping 68%.

The language-specific breakdown for high-school enrollment in 2007-8 was: Spanish, 72%; French, 14%; German, 4.43%; Other, 5.49%; and Russian, 0.14%. German is the most frequently spoken native language in Europe (English is the most frequently spoken second language), and the high figure here contrasts with MI’s saying there are so few students they should drop the program. The greatest increases in enrollment occurred in Chinese, Japanese and “Other,” which includes American Sign Language, Arabic, Turkish, Polish and Swahili. In addition, more post-secondary degrees in foreign language were earned than in 1949/50 (click here to track changes in the numbers of degrees conferred in foreign languages by degree-granting institutions), contrary to an opposite trend in the UK, where the response 20-25 years ago to the need to prepare children for globalization was to democratize language learning rather than to have a language elite. Less emphasis was placed on learning at higher levels and programs were cut everywhere. One result is a lack of native English speakers in the interpreters’ booths in Brussels. “Routes into Language” is working to explain the importance of language learning and is an inspiring resource for promoting language learning.

More connected and distracted

After giving us these numbers, Jacolyn gave us her impressions, and those of her colleagues, as to changes in student profiles and curriculum.

Overall, students are younger and use technology more. However, they are not more tech savvy, just more connected (and impatient and distracted), faster and more cooperative. Unfortunately, they do not master language as well. In the French class, for example, students show less ability to think critically about texts, but share technology skills with striking success. Other significant changes relate to the ratios of native, heritage and non-native speakers of various languages and where these students come from. There are fewer native-speaking students of some European languages because they can get a degree in Europe for 500 euros, but there are more native Russian speakers, native Chinese speakers from the PRC rather than Taiwan, and Spanish speakers from Spain instead of Latin America. More heritage speakers means, in the Korean class for example, that teachers now have students who are native English speakers; but generally speaking, heritage speakers acquire their language with less structure than later bilinguals do and are therefore less successful.

As for curriculum, the core remains the same, but each language has its particular subjects and MI’s new syllabus is 10 pages long. The big question relates to using technology to improve teaching. Internet makes it harder to find texts for tests that don’t have a translation available on line, but it’s making communication between colleagues easier: interpreters skype in the booth instead of using a notepad.

Jacolyn’s advice to the next generation? Don’t underestimate training. Take your time, go overseas, marry someone who speaks another language, read a lot of fiction, learn to write well. Connect theory and life: freelancers need business skills and to understand that “economics” is what’s in your wallet. Be mindful and take pride in what you do. Stay curious.

Jacolyn closed by inviting anyone coming to Monterey to “please come and visit us at the Monterey Institute!” NCTA thanks Jacolyn for an interesting and informative presentation. NN