AI puts translation at your fingertips
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.