Category Archives: Languages

A good day

My friends will know that I’ve been having a bit of a hard time recently and am feeling quite unsettled about my life. Whether it’s chicken or egg, I don’t know, but this feeling of unease has also applied to my job. Maybe it’s unsurprising given I have worked for the Commission for 18 years. But then sometimes a day comes along that makes you think, my job rocks. Not only is it interesting and varied and intellectually challenging, but I am also part of something that is actually helping people and changing attitudes. And that day was yesterday.

It all started at Arsenal Emirates Stadium, where the kids involved in the Arsenal Double Club Olympic Song, Together in the Language of Sport, were putting together the video. The Double Club is a project that we have been involved in for several years, which uses football to help kids engage with foreign languages. Working with the Goethe Institut in particular, a song was written and schools were invited to take part in a competition where they wrote verses along the Olympic theme in 5 different languages (Spanish, French, Italian, German and Greek) and an English chorus. They recorded the song, and then yesterday 350 kids came to Arsenal to do the video. It was lovely seeing all these kids singing with great gusto in different languages. As a language junkie, I also loved learning the chorus in British Sign Language. Whenever I meet a deaf person now I’ll be able to have a great conversation, as long as it involves the phrases “there’s no losing, only winning” and “all together in the language of sport”. Here’s a brief taster of the video, which will be released officially on 18 July. Be warned – the song is a complete earworm that you’ll be humming for the rest of the day.

Then that evening I headed to the Royal Opera House for an event the like of which I’m sure that august venue has never seen. It was called With1voice and was a one-night festival with performers who are or have been homeless. There were two rooms, one more acoustic, with individual performers, poets, films and then a mainstage, with bands, choirs and theatre groups. It all came to a head with Streetwise Opera blasting out O Sole Mio. It was an astonishing evening, and really challenged my preconceptions of homelessness. It really made me realise that but for a few quirks of fate, that could be me, you, anyone. I think of all the acts I saw, the one that affected me most was Veteran Voices, based in Aldershot. Two of the former soldiers read poems they had written. They weren’t the greatest poetry ever written (and I know, because I write bad poetry myself), but these quite buttoned-up men, trained to be emotionless and direct, writing about what has happened to them in a very matter-of-fact way, but with the pain and hurt leaking out of the seams was so very moving. How has it come to this, that men who offered their lives to protect us are living in sheltered accommodation?

This was part of the London 2012 festival/Cultural Olympiad and the first time that homeless people have had a voice during the Olympics. There’s a petition to sign, if you’d like it to be a regular part. And an article in the Society Guardian to get another point of view of the night.

Some of the acts and films showcased:

Jason Hinchey

The Homeless World Cup


A busy few weeks

Over the last few weeks I feel I have hardly had a chance to draw breath and though at various times I’ve thought “I’ll blog about that”, events always passed me by. I’ve got a bit of time now at the end of the last day before I head off on a couple of weeks leave, so I’ll try to remember some of the points I was going to make.

I was in Brussels for a few days at the start of what will be known as the March Marathon, and one of the reasons was to do a workshop (well, 2, but they were the same) on using social media for Europe Direct Information Centres. While they receive some funding from the Commission for their information activities, they are  individual organisations, and their form ranges from NGOs or Community interest companies, to library services or regional government. So their needs vary and their flexibility to act independently does too. I did a presentation, then asked Europe Direct Leeds to show what they do, then gave them some time to discuss in small groups, share their own experiences, then a few of those in the room showed what they were doing. It was interesting to see how differently they were using the same tools, but there were enough ideas to share, and I’ve already nicked one from Europe Direct Ulm, using the Timeline feature on Facebook to show EU milestones. I was a bit worried about the pedagogical side of running a workshop, but the feedback has been good, so I think I got away with it :)

I then headed back to the UK to do a careers talk at Leicester University. This was a repeat invite (always a compliment to be asked back) and this time instead of just the Modern Languages Department, it was advertised across the university. There were about 60 students there I think and after my presentation, there were lots of lively questions. I’m always slightly perplexed at these events by the weight of interest among the students on internships, rather than the full-time, long-term career prospects offered by applying for the concours. I wonder why that is. It could be that they aren’t interested in the EU as a long-term career, but see EU knowledge as important for other things. Or it could be that they are so fixated on internships as a route into work they miss the turning for the work itself. Frankly it feels a bit more like the latter, though I’d be happy to be corrected on that.

The next day was a Saturday and just to add to the madness of those few weeks, it was the second of my two Open University tutorials. I’ve enjoyed the creative writing course, but I don’t think you’ll be reading my name in the Booker Prize longlist any time soon…

Then on the Sunday it was off to Manchester for the Apeldoorn conference, which brings together Dutch and UK people from across business and society. The theme this time was Higher Education at the Heart of Growth and we had some excellent speakers, including the Universities Minister, David Willetts. Apeldoorn is really great for the people you meet, on your own “side” as much as from over the North Sea, with some really useful contacts made for the future. I also had a #technologywin: with the purchase of one little VGA adaptor I was able to present the conclusions of the workshop for which I was rapporteur direct from my iPad. Just a further example of how my iPad has become the kernel of a mobile office as far as I’m concerned.

The day after I got back from Manchester it was off to Birmingham for the Education Show. Our stall was pretty mobbed, with the Passport to the European Union and Languages Take You Further publications particularly popular. Thousands of people passed through our stall over the three days, and not one was critical or hostile in any way, in fact they were on the whole delighted with the support, particularly for the languages. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the introduction of languages in primary schools, it seems pretty clear that there are many teachers who feel a bit lost and are glad to have ideas of what to do. Obviously we provide pretty bland material, click the links to see them for yourself, and it’s completely up to teachers how they want to use them in their classrooms.

I’ve been back in London since then, but out at some really interesting events. I Storified the Westminster Media Forum event on press regulation. I chaired a fascinating afternoon linked to the European Year of Active Ageing, in which the Greater London Forum for Older People got about 120 of their members together to hear about the cooperation that Enfield over-50s Forum has been doing with twin towns in France and Germany. I was roped in the afternoon before to chair the event as the chair dropped out, and I’m very glad I did, as it was fascinating. One thing that came out very clearly was the strength of attachment to the Freedom Pass. Many older people see it as a lifeline, getting them out of the house and allowing them to have a social life, thereby keeping them healthy both physically and mentally. Mess with it at your peril, Mayor of London, whoever you end up being.

The final noteworthy events took place on the same day. I was representing the office at the British Academy event on the value of a year abroad, and you can read my tweets about it by searching the #yrabroad hashtag. There was a lot of talk about the usefulness of social media in getting students interested in a year abroad, but precious little social media going on at the event. Lizzie Fane at Third Year Abroad is an honourable exception in terms of her use of social media, but I have to admit that there was probably an age thing going on, which is as worrying in its own way. 100% of the students that took part in Lizzie’s graduate survey said their time spent abroad during their degree had been worth it, but the average age in the room of people talking about the policy aspects must have been pushing 50 plus.

While I was at the British Academy, and mainly during the lunch break, I took part in a Q&A on the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network about how charities can access EU funding. The Q&A is here and the best bits summed up here. The Guardian does these Q&As very well; I’ve previously done one on languages for careers and there was another on a similar theme this week.

Anyway, after all that and judging the UACES/ThomsonReuters Reporting Europe Prize, I think I’ve earned my two weeks away. So I’m off. Have a great Easter, everyone.

Blogguer dans une autre langue

Notre jour du blogging multilingue est là, et comme je suis encore une fois en voyage, j’ai invité mon collègue traducteur John d’écrire quelque-chose cette année. Voilà sa contribution, et vous trouverez aussi des autres contributions dans les commentaires des postes anterieurs.

I ddathlu’r Diwrnod Ewropeaidd ar gyfer Ieithoedd, rydym yn gobeithio bydd pobol o bob cwr Ewrop a thu hwnt yn cymryd rhan heddiw mewn yr ail Diwrnod Blogio Amlieithog. Fel Cymro, rhaid i mi ddechrau fy mlog i yn y Gymraeg. Ond mae’n rhaid cyfaddef nid ydywf wedi ysgrifennu llawer yn y Gymraeg esr gadael ysgol – digon o siarad wrth gwrs on dim llawer o ysgrifennu, felly ymddiheuraf nawr am unrhyw camgymeridadau. Yn ystod y deunaw blynedd diwethaf, rydw i wedi cael y cyfle i ddysgu sawl iaith yn y prifysgol a trwy fy ngwaith i fel cyfieithydd (yn gwiethio mewn i Saesneg a nid Cymraeg), ond pan roeddwn i yn byw ar y cyfandir, doedd dim teimlad yn debyg i gyrraedd adre a slipio nol mewn i’r Gymraeg a clywed yr hen iaith yn cael ei siarad o amgylch y dre. Gyda’r Cymraeg a’r Cymry mae fy nghalon wedi bod erioed.

Yo diría que mi gran aventura con el castellano comenzó cuando llegué a España por primera vez como estudiante Erasmus en los años noventa y, lamentablemente, dejé atrás a mi primera lengua extranjera, el francés. La lengua francesa llegó a ser la amante desdeñada por la que sigo sintiendo algo pero no sé exactamente qué: una mezcla de vergüenza, culpa y añoranza, por lo que fue y por lo que podría haber sido. Además, a través de mi historia con la lengua de Cervantes, Neruda, Almodóvar y Shakira, he conocido, flirteado y lo he pasado bien con el catalán y el portugués, pero siempre permanecí fiel a la lengua española, una lengua encantadora, con su jota, su erre y su zeta, tan parecidas a los sonidos de las letras ‘ch’ ‘r’ y ‘th’ en galés, pero capaces de producir palabras como juerga, corazón y zorro.

Moja relacja z językiem polskim przypomina natomiast zaaranżowane małżeństwo. Kiedy zacząłem pracować jako tłumacz w Komisji Europejskiej w kwietniu 2005, było to krótko po rozszerzeniu UE na wschód i zachęcano wszystkich tłumaczy w departamencie angielskim do uczenia się języków „nowych” krajów. Co za różnica, czy to język polski, czeski, słoweński czy węgierski? Wydawało mi się, że wszystkie są bardzo trudne. Mimo że nie potrafiłem zliczyć do pięciu, kiedy moje polskie koleżanki próbowały nauczyć mnie liczyć do dziesięciu – wymowa polska była niewiarygodnie trudna w prównaniu z językami romańskimi – za namową polskich kolegów i koleżanek, czy może raczej swatów i swatek, wybrałem polski. Moja relacja z językiem polskim to walka. Przypadki i deklinacja? To z pewnością potencjalne przyczyny rozwodu! Teraz mogę powiedzieć, że to co czuję to prawie miłość, nie wiem jednak czy to uczucie jest odwzajemnione. Język polski, podobnie jak Polki, które znam, jest bardzo wymagający! Mogę przynajmniej powiedzieć, że moja relacja z językiem polskim jest prostsza niż moja relacja z językiem litewskim – ta ostatnia to prawdziwy tragiczny romans! Ale to temat innego blogu.

2nd day of multilingual blogging

After we all had so much fun with it last year, who’s up for a 2nd Day of Multilingual Blogging? Again, the date would be 26 September and the idea would be to write your blog in a language you don’t usually use. For some this might mean writing it in their native language because they usually blog in another, or for those like me that are lucky to blog in their native language, we’ll write in another one. Being able to communicate in more than one language is a joy and a privilege and we should celebrate it for at least one day a year!

Sign up below if you’re interested or on the Facebook page for the event,  and spread the word on Twitter with the #babel2 hashtag.

What about working for the EU?

I was part of an event at the Foreign Office yesterday which brought University Vice-Chancellors, department heads and career advisers together to talk to them about the EU as a potential career for their students. It was heartening, if surreal, to sit a foot or two away from William Hague as he said “the EU is vital to the UK’s interests”. This government has really thrown itself behind this issue, and as far as these things matter, the fact that the Foreign Secretary came along the day before the strategic defence review and two days before the comprehensive spending review is impressive.

We kicked off with a film of students talking about what they knew (or perhaps more accurately didn’t know) about the opportunities that exist to work for the EU.

Then Simon Fraser, the top civil servant at the FCO, who did two stints in Brussels, talked very personally about what he had got out of it.

Many of the questions in the first part focused on the teaching of foreign languages in British schools and universities, something regulars will know I write about alot. I was then asked to be one of two case studies, just an example of what working in the EU can lead you to do, where I repeated pretty much what I have said on this blog before. There was, to coin a phrase, a lot of love in the room, and I was inundated at the end by requests to come and talk to students at this or that university. There is such a thing as overexposure (!), so we’re thinking of a sort of “Back to College” scheme, where EU officials who come back to the UK every now and then make themselves available to talk at their old university, or maybe the university in their hometown. Let’s see if we can make that work.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in finding out more, check out the Foreign Office site or the EU careers site.

Le jour est arrivé!

Finalement, on y est: la journée du blogging multilingue. Une idée qui m’est venue après une discussion sur Twitter si l’Euroblogosphere est trop anglophone. Il m’était clair que même si la plupart des Euroblogs sont écrits en Anglais, les écrivains eux-mêmes sont de plusieurs nationalités et langues maternelles: Ralf Grahn étant finlandais, Europasionaria espagnole, Julien Frisch allemand etc. Et aussi, ceux qui sont bien britanniques ou anglophone, comme moi, sont pas necessairement incapable d’écrire dans une autre langue (ou langues!).

Je suis impressionée par le succes qu’on a connu jusqu’ici, étant donné que cette initiative a été lancé un peu “bouche à l’oreille”. De ce point de vue, il s’agit aussi d’une experimentation des pouvoirs des médias sociaux.

Ich hoffe, wie können diesen Initiativ im nächsten Jahr nochmals machen, mit viel mehr Mitmachern/innen. Ohne zu “offiziel” zu werden : wir sind nach wie vor bloggers! Und ich werde versuchen zu Hause oder im Büro zu sein: ich bin im Moment in Manchester bei dem Parteiconferenz der britischen Partei der Arbeit, und ich muß alles auf ein iPad schreiben – nicht einfach, kann ich euch sagen!

Claro, lo que escribo no es perfecto. Pero es importante que communicamos. Y las lenguas son muy importante para communicar. Hablar con una persona en su lengua muestra cómo estamos abierto a las nuevas experiencias, nuevos modos de hacer, nuevas amistades!

Slechts een klein beetje op een ander taal te kunnen zeggen of schrijfen is beter als niets, denk je niet?!

*This post is part of the Day of Multilingual Blogging on 26 September, to mark the European Day of Languages.*

Est-ce qu’il faut parler les langues?

There have been a lot of pieces in the news the last few days, prompted by the GSCE results and the fact that, apart from Spanish, numbers taking GCSEs in modern languages have dropped. The Independent leader criticises the decision to scrap mandatory languages at secondary level, saying:

Making languages optional at 14 has had several consequences, each as predictable as it is regrettable. The first was to signal that an acquaintance with even one foreign language was a luxury rather than a necessity. The second was to reinforce the impression that languages were difficult, and so to be avoided, by pupils and schools concerned about scores and league tables. And the third was to encourage schools to scale down language teaching and divert resources elsewhere.

The Guardian editorial says

A suspicion that the web is more Anglosphere-wide than worldwide fuels a feeling that others are under more pressure to learn our language than we are to master theirs. Within a learn-to-earn educational philosophy, it is then a short step to deciding that our priorities should lie elsewhere. This is a dangerous line of argument, even in its own terms. If the weave of the web is working in favour of English, there is an awfully long way to go. Three in four of the world’s people speak no English, which is a lot of people to give up hope of trading with. More profoundly, to forgo familiarity with foreign languages is to forgo the chance to see the world from a foreign point of view.

which reminds me of the argument I always used at school when people asked why I was doing languages – “I can chat up 3 times as many boys as you can”. Even though the likelihood of the 15-year-old me chatting up any boy no matter what language he spoke was a near-zero, the argument seemed to hit home with my fellow 15-year-olds.

A longer piece in the Guardian goes into more detail and raises the point that even if lots of people speak English when we want to buy from them, us speaking their languages when we want to sell to them is more effective. As the article says (and the errors in the German are theirs not mine!):

It is true, says Kelly, that many Germans speak English – “but they are proud of their own language and are pleased if potential partners can make a gesture towards it. And it’s easier to buy things in English than to sell them.” He quotes Willy Brandt: “If I’m selling I’m happy to speak to you in English. But if I’m buying dann müssen sie deutsche sprechen.” The impact on British exports is obvious.

What none of these articles pick up on is that language is a serious industry in its own right for the EU in general and for the UK. A recent report commissioned by the Commission estimated the size of the language industry at €8.4b in 2008, set to grow to €16.5b in 2015. For the UK the report estimated that

the total turnover of the translation and interpretation market … is therefore estimated between €290m and €434m

There is money to be made here and that money will not be going to UK citizens if we neglect our language learning. A study by Cardiff Business School suggests that the UK economy is losing business because of our poor language skills – estimated in 2007 by the same professor to be €9b.

That’s all before we get into issues of EU staffing, mentioned in the Guardian article. The FCO are focusing on this, in the wake of Hague’s speech about it (which I can’t find a link to at the moment). The UK is certainly under-represented in the EU institutions. Now, of course, the Commission is charged to have the European interest at its core, and so there is no question of ploughing a national furrow when you are there. But undoubtedly where you come from informs your approach. When I joined, I assumed there would be this wonderful melding of cultures into a European administrative culture. Wrong – the European Commission is lots of people with very different ways of doing things getting along together and making it work. So having UK people in the mix is important. But if you don’t speak languages, you won’t get in. Even if the entry requirements as they currently stand discriminate slightly against native English, French and German speakers*, the sad fact is that the biggest barrier to entry for most Brits is the language requirement. The other problem is that if anyone learns languages in the UK, they tend to be linguists, whereas what the Commission also needs are agronomists and vets and engineers and computer technicians who speak languages. So I applaud the UK government for trying to encourage more applications, and I have already told them that I and this office will do what we can to help, but at the same time, this language issue needs to be tackled in the broader sense if they are to succeed.

* the entry exams have to be sat in EN, FR or DE, and not in your first language. So if you are an English speaker with fluent Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, you will not be able to take the exam (or at least not have any decent chance of passing). This is true for French and German speakers too, but as most of them will probably have English as at least one of their languages, it is less obviously a problem.

Bloggez-vous? have picked up and will support the idea of a multilingual day of blogging on 26 September, to mark the European Day of Languages. I met with someone today who got very excited about the event and will try to get someone pretty senior on board for it, which would be great. My language colleagues will be promoting it in their general EDL work, and I will use our Facebook and Twitter networks to try to get more people on board. Do let me know if you are hoping to take part by leaving a comment below or contacting me via the contact page, and I’ll try to get a list up. First milestone – 100 people signing up to it by end August! And can anyone think of a good hashtag? #langblog? #edl2010?

Working in languages

One of the things that attracts most of us to working for the EU is the possibility of using the languages we have studied hard to acquire. In this office we do a lot of work to make people aware of the opportunities that come with speaking languages, not just working for the EU, but in many other ways. Languages do open doors. Two of my colleagues took part in a live q&a on the careers guardian website last week looking at the possibilities of language careers.

I was putting this up on Twitter and thought, maybe I should be writing about this in another language. So I’m going to start an idea to have anyone who blogs about EU issues writing a post in another language on the European Day of Languages, 26 September. Who is in with me?

[This is a post that got caught in my draft folder, so the idea won’t be new to some of you]

Talking my language

We hosted an event here today on language careers in the EU. In the first instance it was an opportunity to show the new clip done by the translation department showing what working as an EU translator is about.

Three of us made brief presentations about the EU recruitment process, working as a conference interpreter and a lawyer-linguist and then we threw the floor open to questions.

We had quite a mixed group of people – careers staff, students, recent graduates, freelance translator, even barristers – and the questions were pretty wide-ranging as well, though of course mainly focused on the recruitment procedure. The issue of how to get into working as a freelance translator for the Commission also came up quite a bit.

The main message from our side was that if you are British and have a talent for languages, this is the perfect time to consider this career path. English is a pivotal language in the Commission as, like it or not, it is the default working language for most of the organisation. As letters, proposals, legislation etc come in from all the different Member States, they need to be translated into English so the Commission can work with them. Brits are currently under-represented in the EU institutions, including the Commission, so there is a real need for good British candidates. And the final element is that a significant number of the existing English translators are due to retire in the next few years. So just as English is more in demand than ever, it is facing a recruitment crisis. So if you apply and get through, there is little chance of languishing on the reserve list, unless you want to!

So if you have a degree, a talent for languages, and an interest in working in the EU, give it a go! The translator recruitment will be announced on 13 July, and you can get details from, via the EU Careers facebook page or following @EU_Careers on Twitter (though I do retweet most of their important announcements)