Is there any point teaching kids languages, now that translation technology is improving so quickly? The calculator didn’t put an end to maths classes, so perhaps technology poses no threat to language learning. If current technological trends continue we could soon find apps on our phones that make translating speech accurately as easy as using a calculator. This would change the way we think about travel and multiculturalism. It might also de-motivate students from learning a second language.
Professor Nigel Vincent, vice president at The British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences, said in an article for The Guardian, that the UK economy will suffer as a result of a lack of language learning in schools. A deficit in multilingual graduates has restricted businesses to operating in English-speaking markets or having to pay for employees to learn a new language, Vincent argued. His solution is to put pressure on the government to encourage language learning in schools. His theory is that multilingual students, like the children of immigrants, are an unexploited resource that can help the UK economy. But perhaps a social scientist would be tempted to ignore the direction that technology is going, since it may indeed render his recommendations redundant.
Currently there are some impressive translation apps available for iOS, Windows Phone and Android operating systems. Such apps source translations from online language packs. You used to have to type in the text for translation, but as speech recognition technology has improved, and is better at distinguishing voices from background noise, there are now speech translation apps available. Speech Translator for Windows Phone is one such app, it can translate into 54 different languages while online, including Japanese, Hebrew, Afrikaans and Arabic. There are also offline features, including 10 language packs with basic phrases like “where’s the toilet?” The app even saves past translations, so that you save money on data and roaming charges by being able to access previously translated words while offline. Such technology has huge potential for travellers. You’ll never have difficulty ordering food abroad again!
But impressive as such apps are, they are still far from perfect. The speech recognition software can’t always understand regional accents and the language packs don’t include words from lesser know variant dialects of languages. This means that machine translating can still be frustrating and inaccurate. For the time being, there is no app around that serves as a substitute for actually learning a language. But the sheer speed of technological development means that we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of highly superior and effective translation technology being made widely available on the phones of the future. Technological innovation of speech recognition software, translation software and sound recording hardware has seen them progress in leaps and bounds.
Changing patterns in the way people use technology have also changed the way we source information. Kids these days are far more likely to own phones, tablets and computers and they very often pick up on new software trends earlier than their parents. Professor Vincent’s ideas about language learning would be obsolete if every kid in class had an app that could do their French homework for them. The winds of change signal an increased dependence on and daily interaction with technology. Students planning their futures might find it difficult to justify investing so much time into learning a second language when they carry the key to all the worlds’ languages in their pockets.
It might be prudent to continue to encourage language learning in schools while also keeping an eye on technological progress and accepting that pretty soon, we’ll need to reassess the way we look at language translation.
Image: Professor Nigel Vincent
Image copyright: British academy
Tom Rowsell is a film maker and professional writer specialising in social media. He works for a London based Digital Marketing Agency called Empower Digital Marketing.
Having read this on the way back from a school where I was talking about using languages at work, I think it is worth making the point that language learning is about HUMAN interaction. It also builds confidence and gives your brain a different kind of mental workout. The benefits therefore go far beyond being able to ask for simple directions.
As a species, I’m not sure we need more excuses to avoid face-to-face conversation. Relying on apps to communicate in short, phrasebook-type language may be fine for tourists, but it will not earn respect from business partners or necessarily promote world peace. Machines rely on the information they are fed, so there is plenty of inbuilt potential for errors and misunderstandings of tone and emphasis.
Languages evolve continuously. Who will update the machines if people don’t bother learning languages in the first place? Yes, it’s tough getting to the point where you can engage in complex dialogue, but if we don’t promote language learning across the board, fewer people are likely to develop those skills.
I completely agree, although technology allows us to communicate with each other now, it can also become an obstacle to natural human communication. We must strive to strike a balance.