The author has lived and worked in the United Kingdom, as well as in Ireland, the United States and France. With a dual background as a teacher and journalist, he has managed a training centre in the Paris region, run a network of professors for a major language travel company, and taught courses at the École supérieure d’interprètes et de traducteurs (ISIT) at the University of Paris III.
He has run a translation agency in Paris and is now dedicated to writing. Through a dozen books (most of them published by Assimil), he has sought to share his enthusiasm for languages and their origins, without ever forgetting that learning is not only an intellectual work but also – and above all – a source of pleasure and cultural enrichment.
Chat with Anthony Bulger
Translated from http://fr.assimil.com/blog/entretien-avec-tony-bulger-1
Author of English courses in the “Sans peine” series and many other books published by Assimil (English expressions, English slang…), Tony Bulger discusses the future of translation in the face of new technologies and the difficulties faced by the British and French in learning foreign languages.
A conversation with Anthony Bulger is always a delicious and rewarding moment. The man is very cultured and curious about everything, with a definite predilection for literature, music, cinema, wine, good food and biting jokes.
His experience in the fields of translation and language learning is invaluable and he is always attentive to the evolution of the English language and linguistics in general. While Great Britain is doing everything to stem an increasingly worrying monolingualism and France seems more determined to value its own language and the learning of others than to indulge in its proverbial Anglophobia, it seemed interesting to us to share with you Tony’s point of view on these issues.
Let’s start with the ritual question: how many languages do you speak?
I am finally starting to master English, my mother tongue! Professionally, I translate from French into English. At school, I learned Latin and Russian. Through my travels, I have knowledge of several languages, such as Italian or Greek – but in these cases, I speak enough to get into trouble but not enough to get out of it.
What languages would you like to learn today?
First of all Greek, because I love both the language and the country. Then we’ll see: the choice is vast!
You have lived in France for many years, but your profession as a translator and your ties make you a keen observer of the English language and British culture.
The United Kingdom has been concerned about the “monolingualism” of its population for several years, but all the efforts made by governments seem to be in vain. What is your analysis of this phenomenon?
Indeed, this inexorable movement towards monolingualism has been the subject of national debate in Britain for years.
The number of foreign language enrolments at school and university levels is falling sharply. The 2013 figures for university enrolment show a 13% decrease in one year: the number of new students enrolled in foreign language colleges was 4,800 – compared to 45,560 for business studies! In parallel, the number of universities offering a degree in foreign languages has increased from 105 in 2000 to 62 in 2013, and it is estimated that up to 40% of language departments may close within ten years. This is dramatic!
There is, of course, an awareness of the public authorities and beyond – as evidenced by the Routes into Languages programme (www.routesintolanguages.ac.uk), implemented jointly by the government and the academic and voluntary sectors. But this linguistic impoverishment also worries the business community, the diplomatic corps, the intelligence service (Help! Monolingual spies!), to name but a few…
Finally, this monolingualism is all the more surprising as the number of foreign languages spoken among ethnic minorities in Great Britain continues to grow – in Birmingham, for example, in schools, over 100 foreign languages are spoken! Without wishing to argue, the soaring rise of the nationalist Ukip party could in part be the other side of the coin of this internationalization.
The answer lies, of course, in concerted action – such as Routes into Languages – but also in raising awareness of the cultural and societal contributions associated with language study, rather than in an analysis based essentially on commercial utility. In addition, physiological studies show that mastering two or more languages greatly facilitates the cognitive process. In short, the message to be conveyed is that speaking foreign languages makes you both more educated and more intelligent!
On the other side of the Channel, in France, everyone is self-flagellating and denounces ad nauseam the poor quality of teaching in English and the low level of young people in this language. Don’t you think that’s a little exaggerated and that the level has risen over the last twenty years?
I totally agree with that. The myth that “We French people suck at languages” is well rooted in popular culture. But that’s right: a myth.
While there is always room for improvement in language teaching – making it less academic, for example – the progress made over the past two decades is enormous.
On the one hand, pedagogy has been enriched by ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) tools or what are called (quite pompously) “new modalities and spaces” for teaching, which facilitate learning.
On the other hand – and more importantly – the younger generations today are more mobile and, thanks to technological innovations, more open to the outside world and therefore to foreign languages and cultures, but this myth of “linguistic nullity” persists for cultural reasons.
In schools, foreign languages are often taught like any other subject, a set of theoretical knowledge to be acquired in a context that encourages very little personal initiative and tends to criticize error. As a result, the “benign” process of trial and error that is essential to language learning is considered fundamentally flawed. The teaching and learning of languages must be made more natural – as must the learning of one’s own language.
Professional translators are asking themselves many legitimate questions with the arrival of digital tools such as Google Translate, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated. In the science fiction film Snowpiercer, the characters use an instant translation tool, allowing two speakers of different languages to understand each other in real time. We are no longer far from that… How do you see the evolution of the translator’s profession, or even the interpreter’s profession?
Vast debate! Undoubtedly, technological tools have made significant progress in the profession over the past 20 years – and will continue to do so. Software is becoming more and more sophisticated and CAT (computer-aided translation) tools are helping us a lot in terms of terminology consistency, speed, etc.
Personally, and unlike many of my colleagues, I believe that CAT will play an increasingly important role in the translation industry – because it is an industry – and that translators will have to develop their technical and linguistic skills in parallel. In other words, they must now specialize in one or more specific areas – legal, medical, financial, etc. – and, at the same time, constantly monitor the evolution of the tools.
As far as interpretation is concerned, I do not know enough about the field to give an informed opinion. On the other hand, I know that devices like the Multilingual Interview System – the prototype of the system you saw in Snowpiercer – are commonly used today and that, for the general public, groups like Skype and Google are perfecting automatic interpretation tools for the general public. To be continued….
All these upheavals also threaten traditional language learners, such as Assimil…
Yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that the supply of virtual courses and methods is skyrocketing and that some of these tools are well made. In addition, the online interface allows an interactivity that has hitherto been lacking in traditional methods and which, in addition, reinforces the fun aspect of learning – a key element of assimilation and an essential component of the Assimil method since the beginning.
No, because method designers – at least some of them – follow these developments diligently and integrate them into their offerings as they go along. It is true that these technological contributions often have a “gadget” aspect – bells and whistles, as they are nicely called in English – with a thin pedagogical content.
Nevertheless, our goal is always to help the learner as much as possible, to retain his attention and make him live the target language in the most complete way possible. Therefore, if these disruptive technologies can be useful, they must be integrated into our courses and methods.
But above all, it is important to keep in mind that it is the pedagogical content, not the famous whistles and bells, that is essential.
How did you start working for Assimil? Were you a user of the method?
I didn’t know Assimil before I arrived in France, but I often heard people say, with a sarcastic smile, that their dresser was prosperous, and I wondered if it had anything to do with the French fashion industry.
Having finally understood that My tailor is rich was not a reflection on the cost of clothing in France, I started to take an interest in the Assimil method: I taught English in an adult training centre, and my students regularly asked me to recommend a self-learning book, as a complement to their course.
I found the Assimil method to be the most complete of all, although some of the texts were a little dated at the time. I contacted the team in Chennevières with some ideas for modernization. It was the beginning of a long, fruitful and creative collaboration, of which I am very proud.
The strength of the Assimil method comes from its very practicality, its completeness but above all its ability to awaken this natural gift of assimilation that we all possess. Rather than presenting a set of rules in a theoretical – and somewhat arbitrary – way, it allows us to activate the innate skills that have enabled us to learn and practice our mother tongue.
Another strength is that the authors follow the evolution of the target language and can update a book if the need arises.
Finally, the importance of humour is crucial because it makes learning more enjoyable – a pleasure rather than a chore.
Now to English. What do you think, apart from the economic factors, has made this language the lingua franca? In other words, was this language predestined, by its simplicity and plasticity, to become an almost universal reference?
Pre-destined? I don’t think so.
We cannot ignore economic and commercial factors because, in part, it is because of them that English has spread since the 18th century. Certainly, with the colonization of North America, Australia, etc. by Great Britain, English has taken off (just like French, moreover – let us not forget Jacques Cartier, Champlain and company), but it is especially with the rise of economic, political and even “pop-cultural” power of the United States that English has taken root in our collective consciousness.
And then the role and influence of the Anglo-Saxon countries – I love that expression! – during and after the two world wars in the 20th century (the Treaty of Versailles, the creation of the UN, etc.) are significant factors.
This development was facilitated, of course, by the great flexibility of English and its relative simplicity compared to other languages (few verbal forms, absence of genres, etc.) – but also because the language is constantly adapting, simplifying itself (loss of familiarization/vouvement, for example) and easily assimilating words, neologisms or grammatical expressions from everywhere.
Attention: I said relative simplicity because, in some aspects – for example, pronunciation or particle verbs – English is far from being a simple language!
In short, universal English – this “globish”, which is supposed to be spoken and understood by the whole world – is a sabir rather than anything else. Not to mention variants such as Singlish (Singapore English), Indlish (India), Japlish (Japan) – or Frenglish! English as spoken in Great Britain, the United States, Australia, etc. is rich in the cultural contributions of the historical, geographical and sociological components that have shaped and developed it for centuries. That’s the language you have to understand, not globish!