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The Language Industry and the Upcoming Commission on Languages

Posted By Kathleen Diamond, Wednesday, July 27, 2016

(Originally Posted on May 22, 2015)

Bill Rivers

Executive Director, Joint National Committee for Languages — National Council for Languages and International StudiesChair, ASTM Committee F43, “Language Services and Products”

In November of 2014, a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives asked the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to answer the fundamental question that all of us work on: why does language matter to the US in the 21st Century? How does language impact the national interest, with respect to global security, social justice, and economic growth? Our industry exemplifies the last point on Congress’ agenda for the Academy, and we are deeply engaged in the first two. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, established in 1780 by Founding Fathers John Adams, John Hancock, and James Bowdoin, and numbering among its current Fellows more than 4500 distinguished American scholars, businesspeople, and public leaders, has agreed to take up this request, and will soon establish a Commission on language. Its membership – around 25 Academy Fellows and outside experts – will report to Congress by the summer of 2016, followed by a year of public relations and meetings with state and local business and political leaders.

The National Council for Languages and International Studies played a key role in working with the Congress to secure this letter, and with the Academy in developing their understanding of the Language Enterprise in the US. This will be the first national commission on language since 1979 – and there was no real language industry then, at least as we understand it now.

What does this mean for the language industry? In addition to highlighting the positive story of a space with a decade of growth, one which provides professional work for some 200,000 Americans, we have the opportunity to make what we do visible to the leaders of Fortune 500 companies and to national, state, and local policy makers. One line that gets repeated all to often is that language is the biggest industry that nobody has heard of – our work, if done well – is invisible. The professional interpreter strives not to be noticed in the court, emergency room, or at the international negotiation. A well-localized company delivers services and information seamlessly to more than a hundred countries, without the end user – the company’s paying customer – ever realizing that one of our industry members localized the site, provided the multilingual chat, and ran the customer service call center.

But more importantly, I would argue that we have an opportunity, and indeed, an obligation, to make the case for the value-added of language. What if the broader business community saw language services as an essential component of the development and delivery of products and services – as an enterprise-wide investment and profit center, rather than a cost center?  In my view, we have a fantastic opportunity to make a persuasive case to the Commission, which then would make that case to the global business community. Visit for updates on the Commission, and feel free to contact me for more information.

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