Which languages?

Almost any language could be useful from an interpreting point of view. Public service interpreters (PSI) might be needed whenever a member of the public cannot speak the language in which public services are delivered, and language needs vary according to community languages in use in different areas. In a business setting, companies may have specific needs to engage with their trade partners.

In the profession of interpreting or translation we categorise languages in the following way:

  • A language – your first language or mother tongue.
  • B language – your foreign active language, the language that you are expected to work into. For example, if an interpreter works both ways between their mother tongue and a language he/she speaks to a very high standard this would be classed as a B language.
  • C language – your passive language, the language that you work from into A or B.

In PSI and liaison interpreting, an interpreter might only work with one language apart from their mother tongue, and will almost certainly be interpreting into and out of the two, but Conference interpreters normally interpret into their mother tongue, with some exceptions. For this reason most do so from at least two other languages.

Some examples…

PSI (Public Service Interpreting)

An example of a PSI employer would be the Government; below is an example of languages one Government organisation recently cited as required.

Almara, Bahdini, Baluchi, Bhutani, Bilen, Burmese, Chechen, Fula/Fulbe, Korean, Kurdish Kirmanji, Malinke, Mongolian, Ndbele, Nepalese, Oroma, Patois, Pothwari, Quechua, Romany, Saho, Sherpa, Shona, Tibetan and Vietnamese, and Xhosa. (Wales only:) Japanese, Kurdish-Sorani, Pushtu, Somali and Thai. (ROI:) Arabic, Chinese, French, Ndebele, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Shona
(UK Border Agency, Feb 2010)

Conference Interpreting

One of the main groups of conference interpreting employers is International Organisations. Just as one example, the European Union has 23 official and working languages, listed below.

Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish’

The official languages of all organs of the UN, other than the International Court of Justice, are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

For more information on specific requirements, try visiting some of these organisations’ own websites. Some of these are linked to from our Links page.

(Remember, these are just some very brief examples; the range of languages used both generally and in each of these settings will vary a great deal!)

Hear some examples spoken

Click below to hear some lesser taught languages being spoken by interpreters.

Open the Can I Be an Interpreter resource in a new window