Posted by: patenttranslator | March 30, 2012

Larry Summers Is Right – Real Americans Like Him Don’t Need To Speak No Stinking Foreign Languages

There was a bit of a brouhaha over an article that Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University and former Secretary of Treasury, wrote last year about the future educational needs in the United States for the New York Times. He said among other things the following:

“English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.”

In response, Michael E. Geisler, vice president for language schools, schools abroad, and graduate programs at Middlebury College, wrote this interesting article in which he opposes this seemingly narrow-minded view.

How should translators view this issue? Let us look at some indisputable facts.

First of all, “English’s emergence as the global language” can be hardly denied. But it should be noted that the language that most global (non-native) speakers of English speak is not really English. It is a distant relative of English, also called Globish, which is defined by Wikipedia as “a subset of the English language …. which uses a subset of standard English grammar, and a list of 1500 English words”.

My good friend Jerry who lives in Czech Republic has his own name for this language: He calls it “Bad English – the most useful language in the world”. Most people who speak Globish don’t know what “gainsaying” means. On the other hand, unlike Larry Summers, former president of Harward and one of the masterminds whose incredible brilliance helped to plunge the whole world into the greatest economic crisis since 1929 and destroy 40% of the wealth worldwide (while a nice chunk of this destroyed wealth was magically transferred to the deep pockets of these brilliant masterminds of worldwide misery), most far-flung speakers of Bad English somehow managed to learn several thousand words in a foreign language.

Second of all, most readers of this blog are translators, correct? Do we as translators really want American educational institutions to teach Americans foreign languages, and teach them well, at least as well as foreign language teachers seem to be able to teach languages such as English in many foreign countries?

I think that it behooves those of us who have managed to learn a foreign language or two, or three or four or more, whether we are native speakers of English or not, to cheer when people like Larry Summers proudly proclaim that Americans should remain as ignorant about foreign languages as he is.

For example, most of my customers are patent lawyers, who are clearly highly educated and very intelligent. Do I want them to also speak Japanese, German and French, the three languages from which I most frequently translate patents for them to English?

Of course not! If they knew these languages, would they still need my excellent translation services? Even if they knew just a little bit of Japanese, they would probably try to criticize my translations. Do car shop owners want their customers to understand how their car really works so that they could carefully evaluate the repair bill they received from the car shop? What do you think?

Monolingual clients may still sometime try to criticize your translations, but not nearly as much as those who are able to read the original text. This is why I prefer clients who were able to learn only one language, just like this former president of Harvard and former Secretary of Treasury.

The notion of “the rapid progress in machine translation”, mentioned in Larry Summer’s article, is also something that has been very beneficial to this patent translator, which is why I applaud people who help spreading the idea that thanks to machine translation, there soon will not be much need for human translation.

I wrote a number of posts on this blog in which I explain how one can use machine translation functions which are now available on various websites of patent offices, such as the Japan Patent Office Website, European Patent Office Website, or the World Intellectual Property Office website.

I hope my clients find these mini-guides to machine translation functions useful. The more they try to use machine translation to find the information that they are looking for, the more they will be needing patent translators like me.

Because as translators know, machine translations are great and they work really well, but only until they suddenly stop making any sense, at which point you will need a human to help you figure out what that text in Japanese or German really means.

That is why I am really grateful to people like Larry Summers who are advocates of and believers in the capabilities of machine translation, probably because they never tried it themselves, possibly because deep inside they know that they are simply not smart enough to learn a foreign language (just smart enough to wreck the world economy and take the money and run … oh, I forgot, these days they don’t even need to run anymore).

It is really nice of him that this former former Secretary of Treasury, who was paid 135 thousand dollars for one visit to Goldman Sachs according to his disclosure form (not bad for a few minutes work), is sending customers not only to companies like Goldman Sachs, where these customers, also known as “muppets”, have been fleeced for decades now, but also sends monolingual Americans to translators like us when he tells them that there is no need to learn foreign languages.

Unlike traders on Wall Street, we translators don’t speak disparagingly about our customers behind their backs and we don’t give them ugly nicknames, as long as we get paid a good rate and on time, of course.

Moreover, we are much cheaper and we provide a service that is really useful.

Post Scriptum

“English’s emergence”? Where do people learn to talk like that? He sounds like a space alien or some such silicon-based life form. And fragmentation of languages? Which ones? Have you noticed any fragmentation of languages lately?

No wonder the world is abandoning what used to be called English and so many people prefer Globish over this kind of English.


  1. Hello, Steven: Good post. I was meaning to write something on Summers’s brain fart, but other posts took precedence. One tiny correction: Old Larry was never a CEO of Goldman Sachs. He is a former Harvard econ egghead and former president of the university who has done some consulting work for hedge funds. You are confusing him with his predecessor as Treasury Secretary under Clinton, Bob Rubin. As a former Goldman employee, I find it slightly amusing to see how “former Goldman CEO” has become a term of opprobrium, though.


  2. Hi Miguel:

    Thanks for your comment.

    I Googled him because I seemed to remember a connection to Goldman Sachs. I thought I saw somewhere that he was a CEO of GS, but I must have misread something.

    I will rewrite that part.


  3. I dislike the term “Globish” intensely, and all the snobbery that goes with it. The French are rather keen on it, when they’re not labelling works that are in English as in “American”—when their translators really should know better. (“Traduit de l’américain”? Foutaise!)
    There is no definitive version of English, but it’s not simply a melting pot: there are manifold flavours of English, each with its own accent, charms and personality, either as a native of an English-speaking country, or the influence of another first language. But we can all communicate with each other, and that is rather beautiful, so I have a little personal crusade against the splitters and the knockers, in which this comment is but a minor sally.
    Of course, I don’t disagree that if you want to strike a particular nuanced register in written English in a highly specialised subject—and especially a translation—it’s as well to book an expert: that’s not going to change any time soon.


  4. On Globish, Etc.:

    1. I don’t understand why obviously intelligent Germans love to show off so much their knowledge of English every chance they get.

    I watched a discussion about whether or not there should be a minimum wage in Germany and what it should be on German TV today and the chairman of the Piraten Partei, I forgot his name, a young, chubby guy, spent a lot of time explaining what exactly he meant by the term “shit storm” (or I should say “Shitstorm”, I think). Three other people on the panel also could not resist the chance to say “Shitstorm” for no apparent reason.

    2. As somebody who loves everything French, and the language in particular, I have been puzzled for the last thirty years by the fact that there are so many people in US who hate anything French.

    I don’t know whether there are also so many people in France and French speaking countries who hate everything American, but I think that it is likely.

    To me this is a typical case of love/hate relationship, which is in this case based on a weird mixture of an inferiority/superiority complex, possibly on both sides of the pond.


  5. […] in 2007 and for all practical purposes is largely still with us, is also proudly monolingual, as I write in this blog post. This is not very surprising to me as he is coming from the same Anglo-Saxon tradition as James […]


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