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I've read analysis in various places implying that (especially in certain language combinations and markets) English As are rather rare. I'm speaking most specifically about the biggest East Asian languages, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, where most interpreters seem to have English as a B language, but recent shortages of young English As in the EU may be a related phenomenon. Certain news reports from the Mainland have even suggested that the number of Westerners who can interpret into and from Chinese may be as low as ten. Worldwide.

Are numbers really this low? Yes, Asian languages are hard to learn, but there are also a staggering amount of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean children growing up overseas in English environments. Many of these people don't have enough education for their non-English language to reach B levels, but a fair amount do, and some of these people must have considered interpretation as a career. And it's true that countries like the US are fairly crap at teaching foreign languages (especially to B-level proficiency), but from a numbers perspective, I would expect more.

Does anyone have any perspective on these issues, especially in East Asian contexts but not at all limited to them?

asked 27 Sep '12, 22:01

Subjacency's gravatar image


I wonder if I have any insight to offer, not as any sort of expert, but as an American raised in Asia.

That number is not surprising. I know lots of native English speakers with amazing proficiency in Mandarin and Cantonese, but know few with B-level proficiency. However, the ones that I do know are of my generation and not older (born in early 90s) and I think that has a lot to do with China's opening up and dramatic shifts in expat life in Asia. More Americans, at least, are studying Chinese in school starting really young. In my dad's era, the Chinese education offered was very cursory and was an exotic language. Now, in my American University, the lowest enrollment is in the German and Spanish departments while highest enrollment is in Arabic and Chinese. This semester I'm taking a Macro-Economics course entirely taught in Chinese, simply one of many post-advanced classes like it.

Secondly, international schools are imposing stricter and stricter local language requirements and those policies are changing quickly. For instance, the international school my brother and I attended required "up to second level" Mandarin (which means about 4 semesters) which could be replaced with Latin when my brother was there. By the time I was there three years later, the no-Mandarin option was gone and a Mandarin proficiency test was instituted as a grad requirement. Friends who went to international school in South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Burma and Japan have told me similar things. In Japan especially, diplobrats who know the language particularly well is becoming less and less of a noteworthy occurrence.

Finally, I think you might over-estimate interest in interpreting in the United States. This isn't founded on anything but a sense I have here, but the people I meet interested in interpretation more often end up in community interpreting - legal and medical interpretation is very popular, whereas conference interpretation is not really ever brought up. In fact, if you look at the Dept of Labor's online career guide, there is no mention of conference interpretation in the section dedicated to "Careers in Translation, Localisation and Interpretation." So, although, I think you're right that the US' established history of Asian immigration and protected Asian linguistic communities would in theory lend itself to being a great output of English A/Whatever Else B market, it's just not within the same industry of CI that is still very much still Euro-dominated.

That is my impression, anyway, of the Asian language situation and how I expect it to rapidly start to change.

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answered 28 Sep '12, 02:25

charlielee's gravatar image



+1 for slipping in "diplobrats" ;-)

(28 Sep '12, 04:30) Vincent Buck ♦♦

Especially in context of Danielle's comment below, I think your view is spot-on. (Especially as an Americna myself!) I'd be interested to hear from other Anglophone countries, as I'd expect the situation to be similar but not entirely analogous. However, the best part of your comment is the point about the future trajectory of these combinations, which can only be a good thing!

(30 Sep '12, 07:48) Subjacency

The numbers you saw are totally correct. Bilingual students who have a real command of both languages often go for more rewarding jobs, at least in the US and the UK, where the interpreting profession is not very well known or particularly prestigious.

As to the numerous people on earth who have "some" knowledge of both languages, it's like saying: most people have 2 hands, how come there are so few piano virtuosi?? Because it takes the skills, the will, a lot of training, some talent and the end result must be sufficiently attractive. I'm afraid the profession is becoming less and less attractive to new generations.

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answered 28 Sep '12, 03:21

Danielle's gravatar image



I love the pianist analogy

(28 Sep '12, 09:19) charlielee

Me, too. Excellent! Will keep that in mind for future use in a client negociation. :-)

(29 Sep '12, 04:07) Oliver

Well...that's rather sobering indeed. I'd still like to hear from someone working in these combinations, but I accept this answer, even if it's fairly disheartening. On the other hand, the piano analogy is splendid!

(30 Sep '12, 07:50) Subjacency

In the "old"er days, back when Chinese was only just beginning to be the big language to have, even in interpreting schools (MIIS in my case), there were Chinese and Japanese As in the classes, with only one English A Japanese B as the exception. At the time, we were 12 (it was our first big year) in the Russian section.

In my career as an EN A - RU B interpreter, I have only run into 4 others with an EN A who were not born into RU-speaking families, wherever they may have lived. In the last couple of years, I have met one or two more, and several students of interpreting who want to make RU their B but have very little idea of the market they will work on. As to Chinese, I know personally only one or two EN A ZH B interpreters at the highest levels, and have seen only one EN A JP B interpreter at that level as well.

I think EN As in the West run into the problem of their clients not believing that an EN A can ever learn any foreign language to that level - "I failed French when I was 12 years old, so why should you be any different?" There is also the issue of clients not believing that anyone but a native could ever work with a language as complex as RU, ZH, JP, etc., even as a C. Moreover, making a language into a true B (as opposed to merely being fluent in some circumstances) is an exciting challenge, but also a daunting task, and keeping it up to standard is even more difficult, as it requires discipline and a good work ethic if one is not exposed to the B language daily.

Since there are so many more stable opportunities out there than freelance interpreting for someone with an EN A to use their foreign languages, and as EN-speaking countries do tend to discount interpreting services as something other countries need but not us, CI is not a well-known or attractive profession, as Danielle said.

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answered 28 Jan '16, 09:27

JuliaP's gravatar image



I think EN As in the West run into the problem of their clients not believing that an EN A can ever learn any foreign language to that level - "I failed French when I was 12 years old, so why should you be any different?"

This is exactly what we run into, and it never occurs to them to think "gee maybe it's just as hard for a Frenchman to learn English, and many Frenchmen also fail English when they are 12".

(16 Feb '16, 08:03) InesdC

I've talked with numerous Chinese-Americans about this issue, and they point out that there is a big problem with the United States being, in the academic terminology, a "linguistic graveyard." I notice Chinese A's living in the United States for a long period of time start falling behind how the language is actually used in China today. There's a perception that native speakers here are falling behind, much less second language speakers!

For the most part, I am just under the impression that white Americans are steered away from doing conference interpreting in Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic. A into B simultaneous interpretation is the standard in these languages, unlike how French and English works, and changing this would not be good for a lot of people's livelihoods. But, for example, if you are a Japanese B, you'd make much more money in anti-trust than you would conference interpreting, and there's a lot of US citizens doing just that.

(19 Feb '16, 16:29) Adrian Lee D...
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question asked: 27 Sep '12, 22:01

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