April 02 2021

Will technology replace language learning?

Firstly, let’s recap some reasons why learning another language is beneficial:

Provides professional and career advantages. Foreign language skills are linked to increased job opportunities. Some jobs with international companies require employees speak the company language as well as their own native language. For example, the official language of IBM is English. That’s why there are more than one billion people in the world learning a language who collectively spend more than €42 billion every year to improve their language skills. Ultimately, people who speak more languages have better jobs. See chart here.

Learning is good for us and it makes you smarter and healthier. Learning helps improve our mental wellbeing and is a great way to help boost confidence and self-esteem. If you decide to learn a language then you’re choosing excellent brain training that scientists believe can help prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It also makes us happier – learning new words activates the ‘ventral striatum’, the same brain circuit that activates when we satisfy a chocolate craving. Research has shown that knowledge of more than one language is associated with better reasoning, problem-solving skills and creativity. It also helps people deal with unfamiliar situations.

Language learning improves academic achievement. Language learning correlates with higher academic achievement on standardised test measures.

Ok, great, so back to our question: Why do I need to study a language if technology can translate for me?

Rapid improvements in machine translation and speech recognition technologies in recent years appear to offer an easy solution. While problems still occur, the use of AI has led to significant improvements in the quality of Google translations, and increasingly accurate speech recognition technologies are now widely available. Google even has wireless earphones that have real-time language translation. With all of this technology, do we really need to still learn other languages?

This technology is exciting, it means we can communicate with people in other parts of the world who speak Chinese, Hungarian or Russian. What’s more, as the translation occurs in real-time, conversations can have a semi-natural flow.

Successful communication can be challenging

However, the ability to communicate in your own language with speakers of other languages, without having any knowledge of how languages work or cultural differences in the ways we communicate can create some problems. Linguists say that word meanings don’t always match across different languages. Donald Trump once told a European Commission meeting that “the Germans are bad, very bad”. This caused a lot of anxiety in the German media, as they debated whether Trump meant Germans are “böse” (which implies evil, malicious intent) or “schlecht” (meaning they are not doing the right thing). Word meanings don’t correlate precisely across languages. As in the example above, this can have significant implications for international business and politics.

Implied Meaning

Another basic feature of communication is that we generally mean much more than we say. Although language plays an important role in communication, very often what is implied or left unsaid is more important than what is said. See the Anglo-EU Translation Guide below!

These implied meanings are not easily managed in machine translation, because they differ across speakers and cultures.

A good example of this is that it’s common among speakers of (Mandarin) Chinese to first refuse an offer of food when visiting someone’s house, especially if the person is not a close friend. These refusals are a way of verifying if the offer is genuine. Accepting an offer too quickly may also be regarded as impolite. Offers and refusals are therefore often repeated before guests finally accept.

The term “lost in translation” is used when the translation of a word or phrase does not convey it's true or complete meaning. A good example of this is the German word Weltanschauung". The English translation is worldview. The meaning in German goes far beyond this, indicating a specific philosophical perspective on the nature of the world and the place of humans within it.

Cultural understanding

The point is that cultures have distinct ways of speaking, and that means we express ideas through different languages in different ways. New technologies will no doubt change how which we approach the learning of languages in exciting ways. For example, E-readers may make it easier to read more as we can travel with lots of books in digital format. But people do still love buying paper books. Ultimately, we can’t outsource deep cross-linguistic and cross-cultural knowledge to apps or technology, and the need to learn languages hasn’t changed.

As the great Italian director Federico Fellini once said, “a different language is a different vision of life”. Learning languages means we can experience different ways of thinking.  It enables us to develop the ability to change our perspective on what is happening in any specific interaction, and helps us understand the mindsets of others and understand ourselves better. Real cross-cultural understanding helps us build deeper relationships and connections with each other.

Regardless of the improvements made in machine translation and speech recognition, these technologies cannot change the fundamental nature of human languages and the role they have in communication.  

While such technology is an increasingly useful tool, it cannot replace the deep cross-cultural knowledge that comes with learning languages just like the advent of e-readers did not mean people stopped buying books. In fact, eBook sales in the US seem to have stabilised at around 20 percent of total book sales, with print sales making up the remaining 80 percent.

Ultimately we need to strike a balance between using technology to facilitate language learning – from targeting individual learner pain points, to making the experience far more interactive and enjoyable compared to the traditional school textbook! This is something we here at Connect with Language are working on with the development of technology to help learners remember things more easily.

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