Saving Modern Languages at the University of Glasgow

As you’ll know if you’ve visited this blog in the last month or so, the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Glasgow University is threatened by drastic funding cuts. There’s been a temporary reprieve, in that the decision has been postponed until after the Scottish elections. Michael Russel, the Scottish Education Minister, called for a moratorium on the plans until the new government’s policies on funding higher education are known. The University Court has apparently extended the consultation period.

My own submission to the consultation process is set out below.

Glasgow University School of Modern Languages and Cultures — Consultation.

Comments and observations from Marian Dougan, owner of DNA Language Ltd

As a business owner, exporter and stakeholder in the language service industry, I am deeply concerned about the proposals to “downsize” the School of Modern Languages and Cultures.

While my remarks apply to language teaching in general, I lived for over 20 years in Italy and my own (Glasgow-based) business specialises in Italian-English translation and editing. I work for clients such as the Italian Foreign Ministry. I’m a member of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, Scottish branch. In my comments, most of which draw directly on my own experience, I will therefore focus on Italy and Italian.

Trade with Italy — and the role of Italian linguistic and cultural knowledge.

Italy is one the UK’s top ten trading partners (HM Revenue & Customs UK Trade Info).

The Governor of the Bank of England has said that the UK needs to trade its way to economic recovery. Languages help oil the wheels of trade. Even if you do business in English, cultural knowledge — knowing where your potential trading partner is coming from, both literally and metaphorically – is an invaluable asset.

During my time in Italy I worked in the Economic and Commercial Section of the British Embassy in Rome. I attended trade meetings and presentations by British business people who, in their woeful ignorance of Italy, its people and their language, failed to read cultural signals and capitalise on opportunities.

Public diplomacy and the role of language

In July last year I acted as interpreter for an Italian delegation visiting the Employer Engagement Team at Jobcentre Plus in Birmingham.

The Italian delegates were impressed not just by the case-studies presented but also — I think even more so — by the dedication, commitment and enthusiasm of the Jobcentre Plus team. This was a great example of public diplomacy in action. But we cannot broadcast our good news stories internationally if we don’t have the language skills to do so

Everyone does not speak English. So we do need languages

Of the seven members of the above-mentioned Italian delegation, only one would have been able to participate fully in the meetings without an interpreter. A couple had only a smattering of English. The others would have been able to take part in the dialogue, but not make their own presentations in English. Only one of the JobCentre Plus team spoke any Italian. So without an interpreter, that meeting could not have taken place.

The UK is suffering from a growing shortage of linguists

Again with reference to the JobCentre Plus meeting, I’m not actually an interpreter. I was asked to help the Italian delegation find an interpreter based near Birmingham, as they’d been unable to do so. I searched for an interpreter in Birmingham, then England, then Scotland. I tried Twitter, I tried the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, but I couldn’t find anyone. So I ended up doing the job myself.

Again on the shortage of linguists, Klaus Ahrend from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Translation (DGT) is in London this week (4-5 April 2011) to explore ways to remedy the shortage of supply for translation into English, and to encourage UK translators to bid for contracts with the DGT. International organisations like the EU cannot function without languages, and that means language graduates.

Languages give our kids a much-needed extra string to their careers bow

When they leave University, our young people will be competing in a global jobs market. They’ll be competing against young Europeans and Asians who speak at least their own language plus English. We owe it to our graduates to give them as many tools as possible to succeed in this difficult careers market. Not necessarily by doing a “pure” languages degree but by including a language, timetabling permitting, with all sorts of other subjects — chemistry, law, economics… And if possible by adding a more vocational dimension to their language learning, eg translation studies.

Language services are a growth industry

The US News and World Report had this to say about translation and interpreting:

As one of the 50 Best Careers of 2011, this should have strong growth over the next decade

The outlook: Excellent […]. Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to increase 22 percent between 2008 and 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the [US] Labor Department. […] Demand is driven by an increasingly global economy.

In light the above, we should be pumping more, not fewer, resources into the School of Modern Languages.

DNA Language is a growth business — but needs Italian graduates

This promising outlook is reflected in my own experience. My turnover increased by about 30% in 2010 and sales for the first quarter of 2011 are more than double the figure for last year. For DNA Language to grow, however, I need to take on staff here in Glasgow. And as about 95% of my clients are in Italy, my staff need to be fluent in Italian and possess a significant depth of cultural understanding. I’ve worked with, and provided paid training for, graduates from the Italian Department, and been hugely impressed by their skills on those counts. So too were the Italian clients they had dealings with.

For the sake of the UK’s international trade; for the sake of our image abroad; for the sake of our young people; and for the sake of my own business, please do everything in your power to preserve, nurture and grow the School of Modern Languages and Cultures — and the Italian Department in particular.

Further reading:

Teaching the language love

Yet another business case for teaching the language love

Blowing the nation’s trumpet: languages and public diplomacy (1)


I taught a part-time course at the Italian Department from 2003-06, for the princely salary of £1500 per year. In monetary terms, it cost me money to teach that course, as I’d have earned more devoting the time to, and growing, my translation and editing business. However, I feel honoured and privileged to have taught there, and to have met such wonderful students and staff.

The petition to Help Save Modern Languages at the University of  Glasgow is still open, if you’d like to sign. Thank you!

By Marian Dougan 

5 Responses

  1. Well said Marian. You have taken considerable time to submit a well-documented argument if favour of keeping the services and I do hope it gets the response it deserves. In further support of your submission, Sam Bennett, manager of the Glasgow office of the translation agency The Translation People, reported in last night’s Evening Times that the agency’s turnover was up 75% and it had won a significant US contract. The demand is still high and it is important we have the resources to meet it.

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