The Languages of the 2020 Olympics
With athletes from every corner of the world taking part, the Olympics are the meeting point of hundreds of languages, dialects, and accents — this is why interpreters and language volunteers are key to keeping things running smoothly.
While all mother tongues are welcome at the games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has just two official languages: French and English. The former seems to be prevalent over the latter, according to the IOC charter, which specifies: “In the case of divergence between the French and English texts of the Olympic Charter and any other IOC document, the French text shall prevail unless expressly provided otherwise in writing”. The document also adds that simultaneous interpreting into French, English, German, Spanish, Russian and Arabic must be provided during all sessions.
With 1.35 billion speakers, English is the most spoken language in the world, making it the go-to option for many international events and organisations, including the Olympic Committee. French, however, may seem like an odd choice, as its connection to the games might not be immediately clear. However, the Romance tongue has been at the roots of the modern Olympics since the very beginning.
A little Olympic history
The modern games began at the end of 19th century, after French educator the Baron Pierre de Coubertin proposed to revive the ancient games, which took place in Greece between the 8th century BC and the 4th century AD.
De Coubertin, an admirer of the classic Olympics and an advocate for the inclusion of sports in education in France, saw the Olympic games as a way to popularise sports at home and encourage unity and friendship among the different countries. After years of work and an initial rejection of his proposal to revive the games, in 1894 founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The first modern Olympics were held two years later in Greece, with just 14 nations participating — a very modest turnout compared to the 206 National Olympic Committees currently taking part in the 2020 Tokyo games.
French is deeply intertwined with the renaissance of the ancient games. It was the Baron’s own mother tongue, as well as the language of the discussions from the very beginning, and was also the sole official language of the IOC well into the 20th century, according to its charter. The French connection continues up to today, with the Committee based in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Japanese: the challenges of the host's language for English speakers
After French and English, the third language of the Olympics is the language of the host — Japanese, in this year’s Olympics.
With 126 million speakers worldwide, the Asian tongue is among the 15 most spoken languages, according to Statista. However, it is frequently classed as one of the most difficult languages to learn, especially for native English speakers.
But why exactly is it challenging?
A range of writing systems. Written Japanese is one of the main hurdles for learners of the language. The main complexity lies in the use of three different writing systems that are combined to convey meaning in written pieces: kanji (a logographic system adopted from Chinese), hiragana, and katakana (both syllabaries). While hiragana and katakana each have 46 basic characters, there are thousands of kanji — and many of them can have multiple meanings and different possible pronunciations, so context is essential to understand them.
Different grammar. While not the most complex, Japanese grammar is vastly different from English. For example, word order is Subject-Object-Verb as opposed to Subject-Verb-Object used in English. There is also a broad range of particles that can be added to nouns, verbs, adjectives, and even to complete sentences, that are used to express the relationship between the different words. Getting them wrong may change a phrase’s sense completely.
Honorifics. Japanese has a complex system of constructions and grammatical particles that allow speakers to express respect and politeness when talking to or about others. While more informal speech is accepted among peers (for example, co-workers), a different, more formal register is required when communicating with elders or someone with a higher social rank or position. The language also allows speakers to put themselves in a humble position through their speech, for example when talking about accomplishments. Learning these rules (both social and linguistic) can be particularly challenging for non-natives.
These aspects not only make Japanese hard for students: they can also make translation to and from it particularly tricky. So, working with highly skilled translators and interpreters, as well as with a trusted language service provider is essential to ensure high quality and accuracy.
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