When I started learning English, I had no idea whether it could really be “my language”. I mean, unless you’re raised in a bilingual household or born in a country in which the language is widespread, you know that acquiring your target language is frustrating but totally rewarding. Now I don’t have to knock myself out all the time, and English just pops off the top of my head... finally!
After that, by learning a new language I was welcomed into an entirely new world, a whole new dimension of living. And not just linguistically but also emotionally and culturally. I can laugh along with Conan O'Brien and discuss at great lengths how Americans and South Koreans think differently than North Koreans. I’ve talked to British people who say that American English is “an uncivilized dialect” (though I myself prefer and acquire American dialects). My boyfriend’s first language is English. Basically, half of my life is in English.
And yet, after all that dedication and reward, the world is telling me that in the future none of us will need to learn foreign languages; it will all be a fruitless hassle.
Acquiring a foreign language: A journey
- Vanessa King, a positive psychology expert
A while ago I had a conversation with Kathryn. She is a Canadian learning Korean.
She said, “It is getting a little easier for me to understand some of the questions you're asking, so I'm happy to be making progress. But I still feel a little shy and nervous about speaking Korean sometimes.”
I totally understood where she was coming from, so with great pleasure I told her,
“Well, that’s very human, and I call it the beauty of learning. The point is to enjoy yourself while speaking and improving your skills!”
And here’s what I’ve learned about learning: Mastering a foreign language is not a race, and it's definitely not about finding shortcuts. It’s a lifelong journey. It's sad to think that people might not find joy in such an undertaking.
But so few people see the point in lifelong journeys and appreciating their progress over the course of years. They want a push-button solution -- CLICK! DONE! But learning a new language absolutely does not work that way!
The rise of the translation machines
Still, if you haven’t learned a foreign language out of curiosity but for a more practical purpose, I think I have great news for you: Mesay. I recently found this translating software and thought I'd share it with you.
Isn’t this great? I know, it’s not new, and I know that Google Translate has spent decades building up its translation technology and at least doesn’t expressly suck anymore. It does improve slowly over time. And though the translation voice still sounds stiff, at least now you'll never be without some kind of translation service, assuming of course that you have internet access.
And It’s just a start. In the future, perhaps we'll have an injectable microchip that will allow people to speak their target languages as soon as they open their mouths (and no one will know you’re using a machine, voilà!). Who knows?
It makes me giddy to imagine myself speaking every language in the world without anyone knowing I’m depending on technological wizardry. And it's wonderful to think that anyone, especially older people, might travel the world without a linguistic care, chatting with locals and not getting hung up trying to order a cup of coffee or catching the right train.
And as an educator, I just keep thinking — “Wow! How can the human mind be so nimble and clever to come up with this stuff?”
But then I worry:
Are we also making people less clever? Why are we making these things so easy?
How foreign languages change our brains
Your brain gets smarter and more agile while focusing on a foreign language. Everyone knows that. But how? The list below is a collection of facts discovered and confirmed by researchers in the field:
And it's essential to remember: If you don’t make an effort to shift your brain to a target language mindframe in which you interact with the world in a foreign language, all of these wonderful benefits might slip away! As you acquire a new language, make yourself as much a part of the language as the language is a part of you!
Will the translation machines conquer human translators?
First of all, can a machine ever achieve the level of sophistication and depth of a human being?
When learning a foreign language, what you learn is more than mere vocabulary, pronunciation, syntax, and other things that can be coded in machines. As a human, you experience and feel much more than anything a machine can systematize. You learn culture, context, sentiment, ethnic undertones, and countless more subtle nuances. With this in mind, only a professional native translators can guarantee zero mistakes (or as close to zero as a human being can get).
So then, a better question would be: Can machines guarantee the same? Can they ever be encoded to reach that degree of subtlety? If not, or at least until they do, human beings will have an inarguable advantage.
Some might wonder if human translators or interpreters are really necessary. Can their most common tasks be done with at least a passable degree of skill by machines?
Not anytime soon, I'd say, but it's worth noting that machines and related software are improving by leaps and bounds with no clear peak in sight. People will use machines more and more to reduce budgets, be a bit more independent, and even secure some of their confidential information from prying human eyes. In an official capacity, too, machines can provide an efficient amount of common translation for simple terms, small announcements or instruction, and other content that does not depend on much subtlety.
So instead of fretting about being booted out of translating jobs, we should shift our focus to how humans can integrate machine translation into an overall better and more efficient translation field.
Both humans and machines have their own strength. With context that requires creative thinking and localization, it would be tough for machines to catch things like humor, rhetoric, and dialects. Hence, in addition to translating and interpreting, as time goes by human translators can also focus on editing and proofreading content produced by machine translators.
The future of language educators
In the future, human linguists should divert more time and energy toward language that empowers as well as instructs and communicates. To meet this new challenge, here's what language instructors should embrace:
These are particularly vital for native English educators. When the "almost perfect" translation machines are part of the mainstream, English-speaking educators will likely be among the first to deal with a decrease in students. This is largely due to the fact that many students in English classrooms are there out of necessity, perhaps to boost their appeal to would-be employers, with only a small number in class because they have a drive to learn and absorb English for fun or self-improvement.
For languages that are less common or less in demand than English (like Korean), there could be a larger percentage of people who are motivated by interest and curiosity. Language educators, then, would need to adapt to a new role of nurturing and encouraging their students' passion for language acquisition.
Will human intelligence and artificial intelligence work together?