Other available languages: FR
Brussels, February 19, 2009
The European Commission is facing a serious language interpreting shortage over the next 5-10 years
The European Commission's interpreting service faces a potential succession crisis for linguists for a number of languages - and a shortage in several others. Without an increase in the number of qualified graduates from interpreter schools and universities, the EU Institutions will lose at least one third of their English language interpreters by 2015 due to retirement – and about half in a ten-year perspective.
The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Interpretation wants to make sure that young people know that interpreting can be an attractive career choice for university graduates with a good knowledge of languages. In collaboration with sister services in the European Parliament and The European Court of Justice, DG Interpretation has produced a video clip to help young English speakers learn more about the interpreting profession. "Interpreting for Europe ... into English", addressed chiefly to a British and Irish audience, is launched today on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MA2fWvtMPDU and on a number of EU and national websites. It will be followed later this year by productions for French and German speakers. In 2008, the first such clip - for Latvian - was produced by the European Commission.
Large numbers of native-speaker English linguists were recruited from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s after the United Kingdom’s and Ireland’s accession to the then EC in 1973. As they reach retirement age, they are not being replaced at the same rate. Thanks to continuous on-the-job training, retiring interpreters leave with more languages than can be provided by young colleagues coming in, which – combined with similar age-profile issues in other key bridging languages like French, German, Italian, Dutch – may create difficulties for the European Commission’s interpreting service in making available all the many different combinations of languages that need to be covered in meetings.
The growth in the use of English as a means of communication worldwide has been accompanied by a corresponding belief that being able to speak English is enough for international contacts, both for one's work and for one's personal or social life. This applies to those who are not native English speakers as much as to those who are. However, it is safe to say that this perception has gained particular dominance in the English-speaking countries, where young people can see no advantage to themselves in learning another language.
There has consequently been a marked decline in the numbers of young people learning languages. This has been particularly apparent in the UK and indeed in English-speaking countries in general, but is also true of many countries throughout the world where learning English is considered essential but other languages are neglected.
The knock-on effect has been a worldwide shortage of languages graduates. This is felt perhaps most keenly by the international institutions where there is a continuing demand for translators and interpreters, with both the EU and the UN institutions finding it ever harder to fill the posts falling vacant as the wave of staff that joined in the seventies and eighties reaches retirement age. The UN has been actively seeking candidates in Europe to fill its posts in New York, demonstrating that this is a global market in which various national and international bodies are competing for high-calibre staff. At the same time, the number of meetings is increasing and English is a key language in most of them.
English is not alone
Over the next ten years, the numbers of French, German, Italian and Dutch interpreters retiring are also substantial. Awareness actions for these languages are in the pipeline, starting already in 2009 with French and German.
Now, 5 years after the 2004-enlargement and 2 years after adding Bulgarian and Romanian, there is still a shortage of Romanian, Latvian and Maltese interpreters. For the Council of the Union, the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee, DG Interpretation can fill the need for interpretation into the most well-known EUR-15 languages (FR DE EN IT ES NL PT) at near 100%. Demand for Greek is satisfied at about 97%. Swedish, Finnish and Danish have satisfaction rates between 91% and 81%.
In the best case scenario above, all remain in active service until age 65. In the worst case, all interpreters take early retirement at 55. The average case – closer to observed practice – is interpreters retiring around age 60. More detail on the case of English language interpreters below in the background section.
For the more recently added languages, satisfaction of demand is generally at about 80%, except for Romanian, Latvian and Maltese where the satisfaction rate of the need for interpreters currently is about 70%
Due to increased globalization, the demand for Arabic, Chinese and Russian interpretation is also rising. There is not a huge, regular demand in absolute terms but the demand can increase suddenly in situations of urgency, creating difficulties for recruitment. Because meeting participants increasingly tend to prefer English, there is an growing need for interpretation between these three non-EU languages and English. Furthermore, there is keen competition in the European market between institutions, business and governments for those interpreters that are available.
In order to make sure that EU multilingual meetings can continue to be fully serviced by interpreters over the next 5-10 years as a large number of the current staff and freelance interpreters retire, the EU Institutions need to be working now on awareness-raising among young people.
We need to make sure that young Europeans know that language study can be important for a future career and that the Institutions offer a variety of jobs for graduates with a good knowledge of languages.
DG Interpretation has already run successful awareness-raising operations in the Czech Republic and Latvia. Working to make English a less rare language is starting now, and will be followed this year by campaigns for French and German interpreters and, in 2010, by similar steps for Italian and Dutch interpreters.
The shortage of graduates mentioned above is most acute for English native speakers. Universities in the UK and Ireland find it ever harder to fill places on their language courses. Postgraduate interpreting and translation courses have difficulty finding high-calibre graduates, with the inevitable result that only a few of the applicants pass the accreditation test to become freelance interpreters for the various institutions. At the same time, the graduates that we would want to recruit are highly sought after by other employers as well.