We have been talking endlessly about the number and the importance of foreign language learners. Be it the European languages or their Asian counterparts, India has been churning out more foreign language experts and enthusiasts than we can imagine. Why, then, do we still face this lamentable lack of mainstream courses that can help these potential language professionals carve a niche for themselves? Why, then, do these professionals have to continue banking heavily upon on-the-job trainings to be able to meet industry standards?
Join us this month, as Nissim Bedekar, Professor of Japanese at EFLU, Hyderabad gets candid and helps us get some answers.
As a professor at such an esteemed university, you must be coming in contact with foreign language students for quite some time now. So have you observed a changing trend in the number of students who opt for foreign languages as their core subject for higher studies?
Yes, definitely. More and more students are now choosing foreign languages without much resistance from their families. This wasn’t the case back when I started my BA in Japanese. And I think this is because they can clearly see the newer opportunities that await them once they master the language. Today, due to increasing globalisation, the need for language experts is sky high and will only continue to grow.
So would you agree that along with potential teachers and academicians, today’s foreign language students are also potential translators and language service providers?
Yes, I agree. Students have heard and witnessed how lucrative and rewarding a profession translation-interpretation is, if one has an excellent command over the language pairs. Many of my students consider it to be a great career option.
But we have observed that more often than not, fresh graduates with masters’ degrees in foreign languages fail to deliver quality translations without rigorous on-the-job training. So despite translation-interpretation being a potential career option, why are students unable to translate well right out of college?
To start with, unlike universities abroad, Indian universities don’t offer specialised degrees in translation and interpretation studies. Most universities only have a component of translation along with other aspects like literature and cultural studies. This, according to me, results in the absence of niche specialisation among students. Secondly, there is usually a lack of practical and application-based learning in most syllabi which is why students don’t know how to actually use all that they have leant.
So what can be done to change this?
I think it is important to incorporate real-time documents like patents and company profiles during the translation classes in universities. Students can also be offered apprenticeships and internships as a part of their coursework. This system is followed by many management programmes and I think it is really beneficial for students where they invest a few hours a day in an actual work setting.
What hurdles does the faculty face when they propose to incorporate these things in their classrooms?
Like I just mentioned, a lot of aspects like literature, grammar and conversation need to be covered, especially at the undergrad level. And the picture doesn’t differ greatly at the masters level either as the syllabi continues to be vast. This results in very limited class hours where it is difficult to include such activities that heavily demand time. Sometimes, it can also be difficult to get approval from the academic councils of the university.
Is it because universities have different goals?
Well, we could say that. Universities usually aim at creating more researchers and academicians who will undertake let’s say linguistic or pedagogical research. But it is also important to note that many universities are now offering practical and vocational programmes to their students to keep up with the needs of the changing times. It is therefore necessary to segregate the streams so that the syllabi can do justice to each student’s needs.
Changing the course of our conversation a little, we all know how hard it is to master the Asian languages like Mandarin and Korean. Why are so many people still opting for them when comparatively simpler options like Spanish are available to them?
I think this can be attributed largely to China’s rise as a highly competitive and strong economy. And though the Japanese economy is currently going through a rocky patch, Japanese dominance can be all over the world, especially in the realms of technology. The Indo-Japanese relations have strengthened over the years too. So it’s only obvious if more and more people want to learn these languages.
Secondly, the number of people learning Asian languages is still less when compared to European languages like French and German. Hence, there is less saturation and greater opportunities are currently available. But who knows, the Asian languages could meet the same fate twenty years down the line! (laughs)
As a parting shot, could you tell us what, according to you, are the essential qualities in students to be able to master a foreign language?
Other than a passion for languages, it is very important to have a lot of patience. Mastering any language take at least 3 years of dedicated studies. One can never learn a language by doing just one intensive course of 6 months somewhere. Students also need to ask themselves what their motive for learning the language is. The motive should be to actually learn the language in its entirety instead of collecting the certificates of those language proficiency exams. Yes, the exams are indeed important but they should never be the ultimate goal of a true language learner.