Language focus | 23.07.2012

The Olympic Games and Languages

With so much in the news about London 2012, it interested us from a language service provider’s point of view to find out what role languages play in the Olympics games.

And interesting it is: With 205 countries sending athletes to London this week to compete in the games, you could be forgiven for thinking that the number of languages used officially in the games would be just as numerous. Think again – English and French are the only official languages of the IOC and the Olympic Movement, and so those 2 languages, along with the language of the hosting country, should it be different to English or French are the only official languages used in the games.

It would certainly be a massive feat to have all material, communication, advertising and marketing material etc. published into all of the official languages of the 205 competing countries, but why English and French? Google “Why are English and French the official languages of the Olympic Movement?” and the results are surprisingly fruitless. It isn’t hard though to suggest answers to the question. French is an easy one: it was a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, who was responsible for bringing us the Olympics as we know them today. For English however, we can only assume that English is used because of its reputation as a global language, whether you are an advocate of that reputation or not.

So how are the organisers of London 2012 dealing with the official languages? The London 2012 website is available in both English and French versions. It would appear though, that that’s as far as it goes. In their Web accessibility statement, the organisers state that they consider the needs of “People whose mother tongue is not English”. What if you’re coming to the games from another country and have little or no knowledge of English or French? Could the organisers of London 2012 have had their website translated into more languages, and other materials as well? How far should you go when staging an international event?

We asked one of The Translation People team for their opinion. Hannah Snell, Account Manager in Birmingham, says “I think that, realistically, the organisers of London 2012 should have translated their website into more languages. What is really interesting is that French doesn’t come as high up as you think it would in the list of the languages with the most speakers.” If you research the figures, the top 5 languages, based on the number of native speakers, are Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi-Urdu and Arabic. If the London 2012 website was translated into these 5 languages, it could potentially reach up to 2 billion people, whereas the figure for English and French alone is well under half a billion.

Whatever your opinion, the multitude of nationalities and languages coming together in London this week will certainly make for surely the most multicultural summer we’ve ever seen! Bring on the games!


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