AI puts trans­la­tion at your fin­ger­tips

China Daily European Weekly - - Comment - Har­vey Mor­ris

Tech tools, how­ever, can­not re­place the cross-cul­tural ben­e­fits of tra­di­tional lan­guage learn­ing

Per­sonal lan­guage trans­la­tion apps are ad­vanc­ing at such a pace that it may not be long be­fore we are able to com­mu­ni­cate face-to-face with any­one in the world via our mo­bile phones.

Us­ing de­vel­op­ments in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, tech com­pa­nies are com­pet­ing to de­velop sys­tems that could ar­guably make old-style lan­guage learn­ing a thing of the past.

Last year, Google launched new ear­buds that the US com­pany claims can trans­late 40 lan­guages in real time. Last month, China’s Baidu an­nounced an AI trans­la­tion sys­tem that it says is smart enough to an­tic­i­pate what a speaker will say be­fore he or she says it.

How long be­fore the old­style tourist phrase book goes the way of the pa­per map, al­ready largely re­placed among modern trav­ellers by screen-based GPS apps? How long be­fore the armies of trans­la­tors who out­num­ber the del­e­gates in many in­ter­na­tional fo­rums be­come re­dun­dant?

As the tech­nol­ogy de­vel­ops, it will likely reach the stage where we could the­o­ret­i­cally do away with the need to learn each other’s lan­guages all to­gether.

It is per­fectly pos­si­ble to lead a happy mono­lin­gual life, de­pend­ing on where we live in the world. Peo­ple who spends most of their lives in Bos­ton, Birm­ing­ham or Bei­jing have no ab­so­lute re­quire­ment to learn an­other lan­guage.

In some parts of the world, how­ever, mul­ti­lin­gual­ism is the norm. Many Africans can shift ef­fort­lessly between their lo­cal lan­guage, their re­gional lin­gua franca and of­fi­cial lan­guages such as French, English or Por­tuguese. The same is true in parts of Asia and even Latin Amer­ica.

It is a tal­ent that has more ad­van­tages than draw­backs. The knowl­edge of a sec­ond or third lan­guage opens a win­dow on how other so­ci­eties view the world. It can also re­veal pre­vi­ously hid­den se­crets about how one’s own lan­guage has evolved. It can also boost your over­all brain func­tion, ac­cord­ing to some ex­perts and lan­guage en­thu­si­asts.

In an era of in­creas­ing glob­al­iza­tion, it would be log­i­cal to think that lan­guage-learn­ing is on the rise. That de­pends largely, how­ever, on where you live. An in­creas­ing num­ber of Chi­nese, as many as 400 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates, are learn­ing English at some level.

In the United States, how­ever, en­roll­ment in lan­guage classes is in de­cline, down 15 per­cent between 2009 and 2016. It is a sim­i­lar pic­ture in the United King­dom, where a drop in in­ter­est in learn­ing an­other lan­guage is pre­dicted to be ex­ac­er­bated by the coun­try’s de­par­ture from the Eu­ro­pean Union.

Most peo­ple in the US and the UK share both the ad­van­tage and dis­ad­van­tage of hav­ing English as their mother tongue, a lan­guage now spo­ken by 1.5 bil­lion peo­ple across the globe.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.