Will Technology Make Learning Languages Obsolete?
How science and technology are redefining one of the most basic forms of human interaction
Language and communication have been essential components of humanity since the beginning of time. It was recently estimated that there are over 7,117 languages throughout the world today, some of which are spoken by millions and some by dozens. Though the exact definition of what constitutes a language can be difficult to identify, at its core, human language “differs from the communicative behavior of every other known organism in a number of fundamental ways, all shared across languages.”
Only human beings possess the ability to generate an infinite number of possibilities from a finite number of parts. Human language is recursive meaning that it can go back and build on itself, interweaving new ideas and topics that are not currently present, building a chain of reasoning and logic that sets human beings apart.
For thousands of years, the study of language has grown and evolved. Since the days of cave paintings, humans have sought opportunities to share, teach, and ultimately translate both verbal and written communication.
Within the last century, globalization and the expansion of technology have impacted every sector and nuance of human life. From the industrial revolution of the 19th century until the technological revolution of the 21st, massive strides have been taken in nearly every core sector of culture, within commerce, transportation, energy, humanities, education, science, and perhaps most importantly, communication.
The birth of the internet and the rise of technology has changed the way we communicate globally. And yet, there may be greater and more impactful changes ahead than any that have come before. We have in our scope, today, ideas that have the ability to transform communication in ways that are as or more significant than the invention of written language or cuneiform almost 6,000 years ago.
Today, the future of language is not primarily in its invention. Language is both global and regional like never before and has become a staple of how our world interacts. Rather, the future of language is now pushing towards its translation. For the first time since the beginning of language, we have the opportunity to break down every language barrier and return to one, globalized language.
It was revealed earlier this year that Google plans to add a live transcription option to its Google Translate app for Android software. When successful and compatibly updated, this feature will allow a person to record the audio of one spoken language and, in real-time, have it rendered to another language.
Speech-enabled language translation (SELT) and computer-aided translation (CAT) have been around for some time but are really starting to attract more interest from technologists and linguists around the world. What once may have been considered as science fiction and myth is becoming not just more possible but more probable in the coming decades and century.
This leads to the most fascinating question that has captured the linguist communities around the world: will learning a new language ever become an obsolete skill?
According to an article by the Guardian in 2016, more than half of the people of the world speak more than one language fluently. In fact, there are more bilingual and trilingual people in the world than there are monolingual. The benefits of being bilingual or knowing multiple languages have been greatly researched and analyzed. It is widely accepted that speaking multiple languages is incredibly helpful in facilitating cross-cultural communication and works to increase cognitive ability.
Yet, even with these positive aspects of learning multiple languages, machine-based language translation continues to improve and be a focal point of technological development and invention surrounding the study of languages and their communication. Many areas around the world teach students and young children to speak both their native tongue as well as English. Yet, will this practice become endangered as the time and effort to become fluent in a secondary language may no longer be necessary?
Machine Translation (MT) and Neural Machine Translation (NMT) have been at the center of conversations for machine-based language translation over the last few years. The ideas rooted in these methods could transform a variety of industries and sectors, including massive sectors such as medicine, government, and business as well as more specific applications such as global relief and aid, refugee resettlement, and criminal justice. It is not too far of a leap to say that most fields or industries that currently experience some form of difficulty and distress from a language barrier could potentially benefit from these developments and advancements in MT or NMT.
However, AI and machine learning capabilities are still not fully developed to make this futuristic vision a practical reality. This middle-ground of having a technology somewhat developed but not fully verified and tested can make for difficult and tricky circumstances. For example, many doctors and healthcare professionals are resorting to using Google Translate to better understand their patients. However, many states and medical review boards are still not giving the full green light for these practices, instead “cautioning that machine translation programs can be incorrect and that professional translators should be used to ensure accuracy for any written materials.”
The very fact that professionals and businesses are considering and at times starting to implement these translation technologies indicates that, in the years ahead, this service will more than likely become ubiquitous and common. When this happens, learning secondary or tertiary languages could become a relegated and reduced skill.
The number of students around the world that are enrolling in foreign language courses is dwindling. Many states and universities are changing their curriculums and learning objectives to allow students the option to no longer take a foreign language course and instead replace it with a computer science or programming elective.
The times are certainly shifting. There is a chance that in the next decades, learning a second language for any reason other than direct family communication and ancestry will be seen as an unnecessary but vintage or romantic pursuit.
We’ve had small experiences with this cycle before with developing technologies like the CD player or iPod pushing out the record player or the digital or cell phone-based camera pushing out the Polaroid. In both examples, the original technology has made a recent surge, though primarily as tools of nostalgia and artistry.
Is it possible that as MT and NMT continue to grow and progress, the practice of learning a new language (not including learning one’s native language) will decline? The practice of learning a new language will likely never be truly eradicated, yet this move away from one of the fundamental aspects of humanity (the study of language communication) could have monumental effects on the world around us.
If machine-based language translation ever reaches a point of global acceptance and widespread usage, the distinguishing factors between different languages will cease to be important. In the past, the differences between languages like Russian and English forced people to learn each language individually, thus retaining the uniqueness of the languages. However, in a world of instant and accurate machine-based language translation, those differences, while still present, will cause very little to no additional burden to the speaker, therefore, effectively assimilating both languages into the same stream of one, global translated language.
If every sentence in the world was translated, then every person would hear the world’s language in their native tongue, pointing towards a day when it would seem to individuals that the world is speaking one global language. We base our perception off what we hear, so if the technology advances to such a point where we no longer hear the differing language spoken, but only auditorily receive the translated version in our native tongue, we will be at risk of forgetting that other languages truly exist.
Listening to other languages being spoken is one of the top methods for learning another language. This is why so many linguists recommend to parents that are bi-lingual to speak in a language different from their children’s native language while at home. If machine-based language translation eventually evolves to such a standard where we no longer hear a foreign language being spoken, that level of isolation from different languages than our own will have an interesting and potentially dangerous effect on our culture at large.
As with most emerging technologies, concerns of safety, privacy, and accuracy as they relate to machine-based language translation are very real and need to be weighed appropriately. With the increased focus and seeming future-fixation on AI, there will need to be a decided upon outline that establishes the balances and checks on the levels of responsibility a bot can have on the language translation process.
If we let our thoughts roam free regarding the possible dangers of such technology, scenes from science-fiction movies and comic books may come to mind. What if an AI bot intentionally mistranslates a crucial piece of information to a doctor, a government leader, or a CEO? What would happen if art, writing, poetry, or other forms of cultural identity and creativity were implicated in a faulty translating scandal?
When issues like these are brought to mind, we begin to realize that we may still be far off from making the switch from human-based language translation to machine-based language translation. Perhaps we will never experience a full swing from one camp to the other. However, the evidence today strongly points towards a day in the future when technology will wield the same translation prowess of the most studied linguist on the planet. When that day comes, it may be safe to say that the age of learning secondary languages is nearing its end.