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Let's say someone like OP is "alingual", according to the people who evaluate prospective students at entrance exams. Now, from what I know, alingualism only applies to interpreters and translators. However, such "alinguals" would still be able to work as journalists, editors, maybe language teachers and copywriters(like OP). So, why would they be able to work in those fields when they still make grammatical and vocabulary errors? Obviously, their work would potentially influence millions of people: language learners, kids who are gradually exposed to more advanced texts and news broadcasts in their native language as they grow up,etc. Why does alingualism not apply to other people who work in jobs where they need superior language skills, even in their native language?

asked 15 Feb, 15:48

Myra45's gravatar image


edited 16 Feb, 05:21

Gaspar's gravatar image

Gaspar ♦♦

Now, from what I know, alingualism only applies to interpreters and translators.

I think your assumption is wrong. Journalists and editors have to get the packaging of their ideas right, or they will lose credibility, just like translators or interpreters. Should there be a lower standard for those professions, which I'm not sure of, it might be because there is a bigger market. There are more journalists than conference interpreters. Also, your work as a journalist gets proofed before it goes to print. No such thing when you're live on mic.

Which also suggests there is supply & demand at work. Loads of 3rd culture kids want to become interpreters. The market only needs so many. It can afford to take only the best and to weed out those who don't live up to the standards the profession thinks are necessary to ensure a high-quality delivery, which in turn allows asking for good pay. If you have 200 applicants for a course but only will take the five best, the sheer maths will be at work.

A translator not having a firm command of their language isn't a good translator and will be out of business or limited to earning peanuts after a few proofreaders will have spent numerous billable hours on correcting their final work.

They might find some buyers nevertheless. There is a market for everything. Think of fast food and gourmet cuisine. You might be able to sell your product and make ends meet, but people who'd call themselves true chefs won't recognize you as playing in their league.

In my experience, copywriters are a superior breed of translators, who not only have the linguistic skills required to do the standard job, but who also excel at creative. This might not be true for all market segments. Or they might be mastering their art when at their desk with time to think and reflect on possible wording choices, but not be that good when they have to perform live under pressure. Aesthetic surgeons can suck when working in the emergency room, and vice versa.

(15 Feb, 18:48) Gaspar ♦♦

So far I've seen "alingual" mentioned only when discussing interpreters. Yes, I know that journalists and editors have a different set of skills and working conditions. I was also referring to broadcast and radio journalists who have to speak correctly under pressure. Although maybe it's not as "intense". Also, even though people whose jobs involve a lot of writing have more time to revise their work, they still need to produce well-written material: no language interference, foreign-sounding expressions, etc. It's just that if they're "alingual", then wouldn't it still be an issue even when they have more time to submit their work or especially when they're covering an event live on TV?

(15 Feb, 20:20) Myra45

"alingual" means according to Merriam Webster, for example, "not fluent in any language". Fluency is possible without being grammatically perfect, or overly articulate, which interpreters must be. On top of that the term has been abused and used abusively by interpreters. For more on that see my answer here.

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answered 16 Feb, 03:20

Andy's gravatar image


Hello - I posted a thread on alingualism here a few years ago (which seems to have generated some controversy). I wanted to chip in as someone who genuinely struggled for years to get my A language up to scratch - I daresay I would be out of a job if I hadn't managed to get over the worst of it.

I do think the term is deeply shaming and hurtful, and I wish I had got over my fears earlier and gone for the big opportunities without fearing rejection quite so much. (I recently passed an institutional test that has allowed me to lay many of my worst fears to rest).

When translating, I check and double-check every sentence obsessively. In many ways I find producing clear, natural-sounding translations trickier than improvising a speech, especially because I did not attend university in my A and have to work quite hard to ensure my register is formal enough for what many translations call for. In fact, I barely translate any more, because it ends up being more trouble than it's worth a lot of the time.

I agree with Gáspár on copywriters - it takes a great deal of creativity and skill and absolute, rock-solid knowledge of the language you're writing in.

With regard to broadcast and radio journalists, I do think they develop "automatic" reactions the way we do. Think about the many expressions that come up constantly in the media. It becomes second nature to use them after a while, whether or not you're native and whether or not you may have a hint of an accent. While both fields revolve around communication, I'd also be inclined to think there is less scrutiny of language use for journalists, whereas it is one of the pivotal aspects of interpreting and something we must actively cultivate.

Especially in the English-speaking world, I can think of quite a few non-native journalists, and it doesn't seem to be an issue.

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answered 16 Feb, 04:34

Louise's gravatar image


One possible reason: interpreters and translators always work with at least two languages at the same time, so what matters is not just the ability to speak your A language at a very high level but also to separate it efficiently from other languages, which are constantly present and may be an easy interference. Even if journalists, editors, language teachers etc. make use of their other languages in their job, it's not that simultaneous or demanding.

Secondly, interpreting means working under high pressure, on your toes, in this constant presence of the other language. Listening to the original, thinking about how to express something, writing down numbers, looking up terminology - there are lots of things to be handled and that may deteriorate your language production in the booth, especially if you're in training. There must have been lots of strange, foreign-sounding, unidiomatic or just purely wrong phrases I said in my A language in the booth when I was learning the profession, and even now, under the pressure of highly technical, terribly fast speech I'm perfectly able of saying something I would not be particularly proud of ;). And that's even though I have a very clear language situation and my A language has always been extremely strong.

Thirdly, many of those jobs you've mentioned focus on writing, not speaking (more time to think about how to formulate your thoughts) and lots of them entail another person going through what you've written (a proofreader, for example, or maybe a colleague from your copywriting team). Of course, if your work requires a lot of correcting and re-writing, your boss/client/colleagues will lose their patience sooner or later. However, if your writing is generally good, minor shortcomings can be ironed out the way they are in the csse of native writers. This is not true for interpreters: what they produce in the booth may not have to be absolutely flawless but must be good enough with no proofreading at all. ;)

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answered 15 Feb, 18:31

Joanna's gravatar image


As I mentioned in one of my posts above, so far I've seen alingual only used to describe intepreters and translators. In some threads on this forum and other sites, professional interpreters said that A, B and C language classifications only apply to interpreters and translators. Here's why I asked this question in the other thread:

I've known a few people from outside the English-speaking world whose parents brought them to the U.S. and Canada when they were between the ages of 9-14; some were older. Most of them had some exposure to English in their native countries but were far from fluent when they came to North America. All of them went on to study either law, journalism or linguistics. Now, they work as lawyers, paralegals, print and broadcast journalists(in the mainstream English language media) and ESL teachers. Obviously such degrees and professions are more difficult for non-native speakers than STEM fields where you don't have to write a lot. That is, of course, assuming you are good in math and science.

Most of these people have a noticeable but slight foreign accent. I haven't talked to many of them in years and can't comment on language interference in their daily speech. I haven't noticed any errors in their articles and broadcasts I've read and seen so far. Then again, their work gets edited before being published or broadcast on air.

I don't know if they ever applied to interpreting schools. But I guess that they might not be accepted as an English A. So, back to my question. Why don't the same or similar language classifications apply to other fields where superior language skills are needed?

Of course, I realize that people on here can't comment on professional requirements in other fields. It's just that imho if a person is alingual and the A or B language isn't good enough for interpreting and translating, then they likely won't be able to do a good job in the above-mentioned jobs.

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answered 18 Feb, 23:15

Myra45's gravatar image


edited 18 Feb, 23:21

Why don't the same or similar language classifications apply to other fields where superior language skills are needed?

You were given quite a few possibilities to explore:

  • 1) different economic and market situations (supply & demand, expectations corresponding to the daily remuneration and whom we serve);
  • 2) different expectations, notably for foreign correspondents (where accents can add to the credibility or at least don't undermine it, from the consumers' point of view) ;
  • 3) different work-environments (time for review, routinely used phrases on air).

Also, as Andy has pointed out, we shouldn't even use the term alingual in the first place.

Why have interpreters codified A, B and C languages? Probably because foreign and native languages are inherent to the job and complement themselves, and because there is a need to grasp fast who can work from and into which languages. You need to understand how someone else thinks, and given the mental rope-walking simultaneous interpreting requires, you also need a high-flexibility to be the messenger of someone else's ideas. While in journalism, it's you speaking with your words.

A lack of an adequate A language is our world's way of expressing the diagnostic. Coming from a different field, you might very well encounter the same weaknesses and have a different name for the symptoms or the pathology. Friends who teach journalism would call 'em modern analphabets, when one doesn't master grammar well. They're not analphabets, not even functional ones, yet, you get the idea. Whether that is a redhibitory trait or not will most likely depend on how good the competition is. And as you say, we can't explain how other professions work.

If you desire to find out why the literature deems the A language should be as described, you could dwell into Seleskovitch & Lederer, and compare it with similar reference materials existing in the theories of journalism, to see where the bar is set there.

(19 Feb, 10:15) Gaspar ♦♦
  • 4) different target audiences. A vast majority of foreign language teachers around the world aren't natives, don't speak at a level that will be exceptionally rich and flexible, clearly surpassing the quality offered by an average, even university-educated, mother-tongue speaker (Christopher Guichot de Fortis, A few thoughts on 'B-languages'). But when you're teaching foreigners, they won't judge you by the same standard as natives could. Nor do you need to be as articulate as a Head of State's speech-writer to serve your clients satisfactorily. Also, chances are such a quality of service would be above your paygrade. When you're working at a level where whether you say We will outlive you or We will bury you can trigger a whole lot of consequences on the world political scene, it might be advisable to have people hired who know how to render an idea properly in the target language. Wasn't the case that day, yet it does prove the point. If my EFL teacher just doesn't get it right when explaining a verse of a poem, it'll be less endangering to the political balance between super powers.
(19 Feb, 10:30) Gaspar ♦♦

Yes, I know that there are different expectations and work environments for the professions I mentioned. Of course, a teacher making a mistake is not the same as an interpreter during a political summit. Obviously people learning a foreign language can't judge their teacher - even a native speaker - on their knowledge. Still, when I'm learning a foreign language, I'm hoping that my teacher will be competent. I would be very upset to find out later on - once I'm highly fluent in that language - that my teacher was making many mistakes. Also, a journalist who conducts interviews in foreign languages - or consults media and other sources from different countries - has to get the meaning across when later writing an article or preparing a news segment. Billions of people could potentially access the site.

(19 Feb, 16:06) Myra45

Also, a journalist who conducts interviews in foreign languages - or consults media and other sources from different countries - has to get the meaning across when later writing an article or preparing a news segment. Billions of people could potentially access the site.

Indeed, and still, after having collected testimonies, they will write their own analysis and use their own words, and not be tied by the constraints of the rope-walking that simultaneous is. Also, many journalists will not be able to understand the general context of the stories they are covering, which is why biculturals will bang their heads against the wall when reading gross approximations about one of the countries they know well. Back in 2005, some media outlets would say that there was a civil war going on in France, which amused the French bigly. A few days ago, the Paris correspondent of the BBC World Service mistranslated some of what the interviewees were saying about the suburbs. So, maybe it's journalism that could do with higher standards, rather than conference interpreting turning out to be excessively stringent. ;-)

(19 Feb, 16:21) Gaspar ♦♦
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question asked: 15 Feb, 15:48

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