Language enhancement


When you start an interpreting course one of the first things you that may strike you is how the language you thought you knew just fades away. Interpreting is an extremely complex exercise and your language skills have to be extremely solid. Whether we grew up bilingually or learnt languages later, most of us who are (or were) accepted into an interpreting program probably has the equivalent to a C2 level (mother tongue or near-native level according to the Council of Europe). But let’s face it, when we embark on our first consecutive – it feels like we just learnt our first words in that language.

So, although you are a skilled linguist, you will have to work on enhancing your language skills, and probably also the elusive concept of ‘culture générale’. But how do you do it? Since we’re not C3PO we cannot just add another hard drive or software, we just have to do it the good old way. And you probably already know it, but here’s a repetition.

First of all, listen, read, eat and sleep your language. You may have to do this both with your foreign language and your mother tongue. Unfortunately, there is now way around it – you need to listen to radio, read newspapers, listen to the news, both in your mother tongue and in your foreign language and with all the technical aid today this is not too hard. Log on to iTunes and see which pods suit you. I like NPR (the American National Public Radio), BBC, TV5 Monde, RFI (Radio France Internationale) just to mention a few. Many newspapers also have their own pod casts. And if you subscribe to different news apps you will get short flashes in you mobile.

When I brain stormed with my students someone also said “set your mobile, Facebook or web browser to your foreign language”. Translation is a good exercise too, when you translate shorter, idiomatic texts you get a feeling for expressions, idioms, prepositions and so forth. Attention to prepositions cannot be stressed enough, prepositions are probably one of the most difficult areas of language and preposition use has an unfortunate tendency to break down in stressful situations like interpreting. If you’re unsure about language in use, corpora is a good thing, in many multilingual text corpora, current texts are collected in order to compare language in use. Another way of mastering language in use as professor Harris pointed out in the comments is to learn poems or song lyrics by heart. As dull as it may seem it is a wonderful way of learning expressions and idiomatic language use.

Finally, and unfortunately, there is probably no way round vocabulary swotting. Flash cards is a good strategy here and one of my students mentioned Anki. I have not tried it – in my time we used cardboard and felt pen, but time changes :-). For my part I also joined an amateur theater group in English in order to immerse myself as much as I could without leaving Sweden. There are many other opportunities like that via Internet now, and thanks to different local groups you may also find opportunities to meet people IRL.

What’s your best language enhancement strategy? And do spare me of the pillow method, I’m far from sure it’s the best method.

Update: Just to be very clear – an interpreting course will enhance your language skills, but it is NOT a language course. All the basic language learning, including living and working abroad, will have to be done before the course. Otherwise there is little chance you will survive until your last exam.


11 thoughts on “Language enhancement

  1. One of my strategies is to learn passages in a second language by heart. When you do that it really sinks in and comes out again spontaneously. I have a little book in Valencian from which I’ve just learnt a story by heart. Learning the words of songs has the same effect.

  2. I wonder if we’re missing the forest for the trees here. Both language and culture are most alive in communities of people who share them. Perhaps the best way to enrich your cultural and linguistic understanding is to seek out ways to participate in community with speakers of that language. You need not travel away from home in most cases. These days, most metropolitan areas have many immigrant communities.

    • No, not at all. You must of course immerse yourself in your second language and culture. These tips should not be seen as learning a language per se, they are aimed at students who are enrolled in a program at thus have limited possibilities to travel away from home or immerse themselves in other settings. Hopefully this was done before enrolling in interpreting training.

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  5. I speak very much with people who are still learning the language. It helps me to understand where I have to be aware when I am interpreting. What is difficult for them is what is difficult to interpret as well. Finally, I think it is basic to know the history of the country, because it decides in many cases how language is looking like, specially in the laws. Very good post indeed.

  6. Thank you for a very enlightening article. A comment on one fo the strategies mentioned- flash cards. I can’t stand flash cards! But I recognize the value of the exercise, so I adapted it to my curious mind and created a memory game. Just writing the words in both languages in business card templates of the same color, shuffle them and place them face down on a surface (I organize them into a grid). Then I can have fun while I learn by matching the source+target.

  7. Modern literature! I remember straight after my second year German translation exam at uni everyone was really stressed because they had found the text so hard. The text in question was on the subject of finance, and I hadn’t realised how difficult everybody else would find it because I was reading a German thriller at the time, in which the main character was involved in fraud. And because I read it all in context, I wasn’t juggling a load of words and definitions and trying to remember which ones matched (a problem I have a lot when I learn vocab, though I still know I have to do it.)

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