Word on the Street

Needed: New localization education programs

Could localization education make language education even more relevant?

Adam Wooten

Adam Wooten, localization consultant and trainer at, has more than 15 years of experience in the language industry. He is assistant professor in the translation and localization management program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and the former CEO and cofounder of AccuLing.

When the economy took a dive ten years ago and jobs became scarce, many people decided to pursue degrees and higher education reaped the benefit. However, as the US economy continues to improve, higher education enrollment is declining. Total university and college enrollment dropped 11.7% between 2013 and 2018 according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

This enrollment decline combined with technology advances has led to many dire headlines that talk of a “higher education bubble” and its inevitable “pop.” Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, author of the best-selling book The Innovator’s Dilemma, predicted in his 2011 book The Innovative University, cowritten by Henry J. Eyring, that half of American universities would close or go bankrupt within 10 to 15 years.

This is disconcerting for any college, but particularly for colleges of humanities, where the decline is particularly sharp. US bachelor’s degrees for foreign languages, literatures and linguistics dropped 14.9% between 2013 and 2016 according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. More specifically, language enrollments have dropped 15.3%, from 1.67 million to 1.42 million, between 2009 and 2016, according to the Modern Language Association.

Language and practical education

Partly spurred by these signs, some humanities colleges and foreign language departments are finally beginning to combine humanities education and foreign language programs with practical and technical education. Language classes are no longer exclusively dedicated to grammar, literature or pedagogy; some actually include instruction in translation, interpreting and localization.

Following the vision of Dean Scott Sprenger, Weber State University’s College of Arts and Humanities in Ogden, Utah, is developing new degree programs in localization and translation. This is not Sprenger’s first adventure with localization. While previously serving as associate dean at Brigham Young University (BYU)’s College of Humanities, Sprenger promoted what he called “Humanities+” and “+Humanities” initiatives to combine humanities plus practical and technical education.

“In Humanities+,” explained Sprenger in a 2014 speech at BYU, “humanities disciplines remain the center of gravity, but we encourage students to supplement their study with technical coursework, mentored research, leadership roles, and — above all — internship experiences. With +Humanities, we want faculty and students across campus to see us as a valuable resource — not only for professionalizing foreign language skills, but also for cultivating the crucial skills of writing, textual analysis, historical insight, and cross-cultural thinking.”

Sprenger noted that the language services industry is particularly suited for such educational initiatives partly because of continuing job growth. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 18% job growth from 2016 to 2026 for interpreters and translators, significantly higher than the 7% anticipated growth for all occupations. Localization is also attractive because it combines skills in language, business and technology, and almost every localization conference includes a session that reminds us of the ongoing talent gap.

Fast-growing localization education programs

The localization minor launched by BYU in 2016 had 48 students within the first year, making the program the school’s fastest-growing minor according to

Similarly, the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) launched a localization minor last year that has already attracted at least 60 students. UTA’s existing localization and translation certificate has approximately 130 students in the program.

These are not isolated incidents. The translation and localization management program where I teach at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) has also seen significant growth in recent years.

Localization education growing pains

As administrators look to make their foreign language departments practical with new programs in translation and localization, they should be aware of the typical growing pains that many of these programs experience. Some of these obstacles are to be expected, considering that the study of localization is relatively new and most institutions of higher education operate based on very old traditions.

One of these traditions is to limit faculty positions to those who hold a PhD. Unfortunately, unlike our European counterparts, schools in the United States do not offer any doctoral degrees in localization. And apart from Kent State University’s program, even translation doctorates are primarily focused on literary translation and comparative literature.

Although many forward-thinking faculty members of a language department may express interest in adding a localization program, this US shortage of doctorates in localization and practical translation means that most such faculty likely have limited exposure to our fast-changing industry. With such limited exposure, language professors — like many translation and localization clients — might assume they already know all they need to know.

I have observed this attitude at many universities. When I asked one language professor, “Which translation professionals contributed to the design of this new translation program?” I heard only crickets. At another school, a professor and administrator naively boasted, “Well, even without experience, any of the faculty here could design and teach a software localization course next semester. That’s what we do.”

I enthusiastically applaud such professors and administrators for boldly moving forward to add localization and translation to their curriculum; we need more of these programs. However, I worry that these academics do not know what they do not know, and such ignorance can lead to mistakes that are strangely detached from the realities of the language services industry. For example, one translation degree program claimed to prepare students for careers in localization management because it included a single insufficient course on translation tools. In other cases, translation courses have been taught exclusively by traditional language professors who have zero professional experience or formal education in translation.

Again, I applaud such schools for at least launching a translation or localization program in spite of limited budgets and limited staff. Perhaps some of these limitations are inevitable during an initial launch period, but schools must soon move beyond these limitations and get help to create a high-quality program. Otherwise, they run the risk of seriously disappointing the students who have invested in their programs.

Smart schools get localization pros involved

Like all of us, academics must realize they can’t possibly know everything and must therefore seek outside expertise. Before they can help students to bridge the gap from academia to industry, smart schools must actively seek to involve professionals in the creation and maintenance of their localization programs.

Schools should solicit help from translation and localization professionals to advise and help with the following tasks:

[ Identifying industry trends and training opportunities
[ Designing programs
[ Hiring instructors
[ Teaching courses
[ Giving guest presentations
[ Providing career advisement.

Some schools will have an easier time with this if their faculty positions are not limited exclusively to PhD holders so they can more easily hire localization professionals as instructors, either full-time or adjunct.

Smart students reach across the gap before graduation

Admittedly, professors can not be completely responsible for a student’s education. Students must also take some responsibility for their own education and career goals. As mentioned last year in this column, smart students will reach across the gap before graduation in the following ways:

[ Gaining experience while in school, either paid or unpaid
[ Connecting with professionals where the professionals are, at industry conferences by GALA, LocWorld, ATA, TAUS, Brand2Global, IMUG and other organizations.

Professionals can also reach back across the gap

Professionals can also reach out to new and existing localization programs to help bridge the gap. Some of the ways that a professional might offer help include the following:

[ Being an expert resource for faculty
[ Giving guest presentations
[ Providing opportunities for \t\t\tstudents to gain experience
[ Mentoring students.

This is a remarkably kind industry with many generous professionals who already give of their time. Sometimes the effort is even somewhat organized. For example, the Bridge Committee for the Association of Language Companies regularly provides insights and advice to schools that want to add or improve translation and localization programs.

One of the main reasons I was able to bridge the gap years ago from localization education at BYU to the localization industry was because Professor Alan K. Melby shared this vision. Melby collaborated with many localization professionals, including Tim Hunt, CTO of inWhatLanguage, who was at that time founder and CEO of Lingotek. As an expert resource for Melby, Hunt gave guest presentations to our class. After I saw him again at a professional conference, Hunt eventually offered me an opportunity to gain experience with him as a student intern and generously mentored me for some time.

Many other professionals, students and faculty are already following these practices. Perhaps that is what helped you bridge the gap into your own localization career. Even if you were not so fortunate, I hope more of us will take the opportunity to pay it forward.

Hopefully such professional-academic partnerships will lead to not only additional programs but also new types of localization education programs. Beyond the graduate degrees offered by MIIS, Kent State and others, we need additional undergraduate programs including bachelor’s degrees, minors, certificates, associate’s degrees and more, both online and offline. Even other degrees in technology, business and other disciplines would benefit from localization education that permeates the entire curriculum.

The need is there presently, not only in our industry, which requires more localization talent, but also in educational institutions, which must make foreign language education more relevant.