Advocacy Matters

If you talk with anyone in our industry, it becomes readily apparent that our stories about how we acquired our languages are all very different. But however different, there’s one common thread that runs through our narratives: spending time away from our home countries. Whatever our circumstances, we’re part of a very small group of people who not only speak and write two (or more) languages, we speak and write them very well. And it’s clear that there aren’t enough of us.

Studies indicate a gap between the number of highly qualified interpreters and translators and demand, and that gap is growing. What’s more, that skills gap extends well beyond our industry. World language teachers are increasingly difficult to find, and business are expressing dismay at not being able to find new hires with the language and cultural skills they need to compete in a globalized world. We need to do better.

It’s against this backdrop that 130 people from all corners of the language enterprise gathered in our nation’s capital in February to advocate for federal support for language learning during Language Advocacy Day, hosted by the Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS). In addition to congressional funding for elementary and secondary education programs, advocacy efforts also included grant programs for overseas studies, teacher education programs, defense research and language instruction, domestic and foreign intelligence analysis, as well as business regulations that allow the translation and interpreting industry to function.

This group fanned out over Capitol Hill to talk with senators, representatives, and both congressional and executive branch staffers about the importance of strengthening our language learning programs. By coming together on one day and using the amplifying power of social media, our message was heard. In fact, the conference hashtag (#JNCL17) was trending on Twitter for a short period (before other breaking headlines took the limelight). I’ve included some of these Twitter posts here for you to view.

The biggest news—and public relations opportunity—was the release of a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the State of America’s Languages, commissioned by Congress (hashtag #LangReport). The previous report, which dated from 1979, was called the “Carter Commission.” The hope is that the new report will have the same impact on national, regional, and local educational policies as the report that spurred the nation’s infatuation with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) programs. The report was released at a press event on February 28, 2017. A data-rich companion website (www.leadwithlanguages.org), a campaign powered by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, went live the following day.

The report’s recommendations and data make clear the level of expertise needed by America’s translation and interpreting community, and it’s information we can use to help raise our public image. But it’s up to us to articulate and communicate the message. Recent events have turned many complacent people into active advocates, and there are many tools out there we can use: calls, e-mail, and postcards to our elected representatives, as well as social media.

I would encourage all ATA members and supporters to sign up to receive policy alerts from JNCL-NCLIS (languagepolicy.org). These contain specific actions and templates/scripts you can use to make advocacy easy. Follow #LanguageMatters and @JNCLinfo on Twitter for opportunities to amplify others’ messages. Last year—before the current administration energized so many—our collective efforts sent over 20,000 messages to the Hill. The current political climate means we have a stellar opportunity to make meaningful changes happen, to the benefit of all.


Caitilin Walsh is a past president of ATA (2013–2015). She currently serves as chair of ATA’s Education and Pedagogy Committee. She was recently elected to the executive committee of the Joint National Committee for Languages. An ATA-certified French>English translator, she produces translations for the computer industry and food lovers alike. She is a graduate of Willamette University (Oregon) and the Université de Strasbourg (France). She teaches ethics and business practices at the Translation and Interpreting Institute at Bellevue College. She is also a member of the Translation and Interpreting Advisory Committee for the Puget Sound Skills Center. Contact: cwalsh@nwlink.com.

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