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March 2020

Will Technology Replace Language Learning?

Why even advanced AI won’t replace language study

Fans of Star Trek are familiar with the universal translator used in the show that allows creatures across the universe to speak with one another in real time. While we are very far from such technology, artificial intelligence (AI) has been making big improvements in the past few years when it comes to language translation.

For example, the oft-used Google Translate can not only translate words and phrases into a multitude of languages, it can also translate images and speech. And language translation software is much more accurate than before, making these electronic tools invaluable for those who need to communicate internationally.

New technologies like wireless earbuds can work with such applications to translate in real time while you have a conversation with others. A number of services already offer real-time translation in both professional and casual settings.

But what does this mean for the future of language learning? If these technologies improve, why would one even bother with learning a language at all? There are still reasons to pick up the textbook. Here are some compelling arguments in favor of learning a new language, even with big advancements in technology in the near future. 

Technology is an extra barrier to human communication

The fantasy that is Star Trek aside, even the best real-time translator requires some sort of digital voice. Imagine you’re having a conversation with a loved one. Would it be the same if this person’s voice was suddenly in the form of a digital voice? Even if AI was able to model our voices, the result would still lack the certain nuances that make us sound human, be it emotion or inflection. In any case, listening to a digital translation is far less comforting than hearing someone’s actual voice.

Languages have many variations and subtleties

It’s not enough to be understood when speaking; sometimes we want to say something in a particular way. There are often many sentence forms that express the same thing, but which form you choose changes the tone or precise meaning of what you’d like to convey. Even if AI translators could accommodate all these variations, it would be a pain for you to have to choose each one before applying the translation.

For example, these following sentences all seem the same but have different undertones:
- It’s hot today.
- It’s hot today.
- It’s hot today.

The first is a clear statement that the temperature is high on this current day. The second, with the emphasis on “today”, infers that you are drawing a comparison with some other day that was perhaps less hot. The third option either expresses that you think it’s really hot today, or perhaps that you previously thought it might be cold. Perhaps we could train AI to match the inflection of voices. Even so, it would still be hard when dealing with more complex multiple translations.

Languages are always evolving

Languages are not fixed, so it’s hard for AI to keep up, even if it’s constantly being updated. This is because language is different for people living in different places. For example, an English speaker in California might use slang or manners of speech different from an English speaker in Boston, let alone an English speaker in Leeds.

Tossing in loanwords from other languages and neologisms (new phrases like “WTF”), and you can see how complicated it would be for AI to keep up. And, even if it could keep up, choosing how you wish to express yourself adds an extra complexity and delay.

Not everyone has access to technology

While it may seem like smart technologies are ubiquitous around the world, not everyone has the latest device in their pocket. Some communities have tried eliminating paper currency in favor of digital currency, coming up against opposition because, while it is more efficient, it can discriminate against older shoppers who may not have access or the know-how to use digital currency. Similarly, what good is the latest in language translation when you’re shopping in a foreign market where everyone is disconnected? We know very well today how an over-reliance on technology can lead to difficult situations.

Learning a language is good for your brain

Sometimes we forget that many people around the world learn a new language not for business or school but for pleasure. Learning a new language is fun, and it’s good for your brain. There are many things a computer can do for us today that we choose to do ourselves, whether it’s drawing a picture or editing a manuscript. Sometimes it just feels so much better doing it ourselves, with that trustworthy supercomputer inside our heads.

What are your predictions for the future of language learning? How do you think it will change the landscape of study? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” telc English for more articles on language learning.