Are we Brits hobbling ourselves with monolingualism?

We are honoured to welcome Susie Kershaw to our blog spot this month.  Susie is an experienced linguist and language consultant, a Fellow of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, and of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, qualified in French and Spanish.

An edited version of this article has appeared in the weekly publication The New European, published on 10 June 2017.  We recommend that, in the interest of client education, translators and interpreters should direct clients to this post for a lesson on how English language speakers may be missing out on our understanding of the world.

Are we Brits hobbling ourselves with monolingualism?
by Susie Kershaw, FCIL, FITI

French citizens had been voting all day to choose their final two candidates for the presidency.  When the Sky News Anchor in London introduced their eagerly anticipated feed from Paris at 7.30pm on 23rd April viewers heard: ‘we are now going live to Paris for the results’ followed by ‘we can’t go to Paris as there is no interpretation’.

Like the bees, vital to 71% of our key food crops, largely invisible and unacknowledged until they are not there, the skills of professional translation and interpreting are constantly churning in the background, oiling the cogs of globalisation.  We only notice them when they are not there.

From the moment when the poorly advised Maoris signed over the rights to their land in New Zealand to the British Crown, to the development of multilingual simultaneous interpreting at the Nuremberg trials post WWII, it has been apparent that without skilled translators or interpreters cross-border trade, cultural exchange and justice on a global scale cannot function.

Such precious support is particularly crucial for a monolingual country such as the UK attempting to make relationships with both neighbouring and global partners.

The UK hobbles itself.  Following the period when Britain imposed its language on all imperial subjects, it became accepted that ‘they all spoke English’.    Since English has been adopted as a common currency of ‘Globish’ aiding communication between all countries, the mother country could benefit from being the experts but seems to have given away the patent.  Even in Eurovision, most countries now choose to sing in English!

The majority of non-native English speakers speak at least one other language as well, which gives them an advantage when making relationships in culture, trade and, dare I say it, politics.

Monolingualism restricts the ability to see the world from another point of view.   When most of our fellow global citizens speak at least two languages, in monolingual England we reduce our potential to control our own choices and explore enriching, flexible relationships around the globe.

President Macron of France and his new Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, as well as several of their new ministerial team speak and work in German and English.  They already know they are European and see society through a range of lenses.  Even President Putin, in a joint press conference during his visit to Paris in Macron’s first month in office, commented on the number of Russian speakers on the French team.

Monolingualism can also be said to hinder understanding of how to hold more than one identity simultaneously: regional, national and supranational e.g. Catalan/Spanish/European or, nearer home, Welsh/British/European.  As an English child at school in Wales, I was accustomed to hearing Welsh spoken around me, being followed by an ‘ambwlans’ up winding lanes, and singing a different National Anthem at speech day every year.

As the rest of the trading world have been developing their ability to work in English, whilst retaining their own language, the UK is now uniquely weakened in this regard, having in addition gradually reduced the study of languages in our education system; thus rendering the UK even more dependent on the services of impartial, professional translators and interpreters.

A society priding itself on fairness and diversity in a globalised world needs such services to enable effective functioning of our courts, healthcare and armed forces, to support accurate and balanced reporting by the media, legal contracting, patents and the general paperwork of everyday life.  The tracking of cyber and other terrorists, child traffickers and drug runners could not function without these largely invisible, essential services.

Each highly trained and knowledgeable interpreter or translator is truly a global citizen.  To keep their skills updated they each depend upon living and working in close proximity to the country and culture dictated by their appropriate language combinations and subject specialisms.  In the respected UK language industry, translators work into their mother tongue. It would be impossible to replace all EU nationals with British translators.  Those who have elected to base themselves in the UK, some over many years, now need to know they have an automatic right to an appropriate residence permit.  Otherwise they will become alienated and leave, taking their expertise, knowledge and contribution to our economy with them.

If Brexit proceeds, these key individuals, whether native EU or UK citizens in 2017, must be considered to be the crown jewels of our bee colony when it comes to permission to live and work in the UK: they need freedom to choose where to live, and they need to be considered key workers for the health of the UK economy.  These precious professionals are vital to the UK, and by extension the European economy.  Offering skills validated by our respected professional institutes, we must fight to preserve their automatic right to permanent residence.

Susie Kershaw, Language Consultant

Fellow of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting

Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Linguists



  1. An excellent and thought provoking article Susie. I wish I was more Facebook savvy as I really only know how to press the Facebook button to share it on my page. I’ve ‘liked’ it now and will look to see if it appears there. Love Barbara