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UK Must Improve Language Skills to Prepare for Brexit

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UK businesses and institutions urgently need to prioritise language skills to avoid competitive disadvantage from Brexit says the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI).

In the week of its international conference in Cardiff, the Institute is highlighting how Brexit could expose this as a major weakness if action is not taken urgently.

The UK has traditionally lagged behind many countries in the ability of its citizens to speak other languages, as Lord Harrison pointed out recently during the debates on the EU Bill (Notification of Withdrawal) – ‘Our ignorance of continental languages, people, customs, habits and especially markets has made us carelessly complacent. We idly rely on speaking English fortissimo in brokering trade deals’.

And Brexit will bring new challenges. If the UK removes itself from common EU rules, practices and reciprocal arrangements, it is likely there will be a need to produce a higher volume of bespoke trade, contractual and legal documentation.

While the English language will continue to play a very important role in the EU, it is also likely that ‘doing everything in English’ will no longer be a given. The President of the European Commission has already said English could become less significant in terms of the business of the EU.

This means that it will be even more important to have access to individuals who can speak the language of those with whom there is a desire or need to communicate.

If large numbers of EU nationals currently living in the UK leave as a result of Brexit, there will be a shortfall in necessary language skills.

In relation to translation and interpreting, this could make it more difficult to sustain one of the strengths of the language sector in the UK –  the preference for practitioners to be translating into their own language to maximise accuracy and quality.

The UK’s vulnerability in this area is compounded by the fact that organisations often do not understand what is involved in translation and interpreting and what constitutes a professional service. How do you know if a professional translator has done a good job for you if you cannot actually speak the language?

ITI Chairman Sarah Griffin-Mason commented:

‘It’s important to remember that competence in another language is not just about knowing the words, it’s about cultural awareness and empathy too. Whether through a better trained workforce or use of appropriately qualified translators and interpreters, businesses need to put themselves in a strong position to build important new relationships and sustain existing ones in very different trading conditions.

The ITI directory of qualified professional translators and interpreters is available at www.iti.org.uk