Will Translation Apps Make Learning a Foreign Language Obsolete?

From a New York Times column by John McWhorter headlined “Will Translation Apps Make Learning a Foreign Language Obsolete?”

In Europe, nine out of 10 students study a foreign language. In the United States, only one in five do. Between 1997 and 2008, the number of American middle schools offering foreign languages dropped from 75 percent to 58 percent. Between 2009 and 2013, one American college closed its foreign language program; between 2013 and 2017, 651 others did the same.

At first glance, these statistics look like a tragedy. But I am starting to harbor the odd opinion that maybe they are not. What is changing my mind is technology.

Before last Christmas, for example, I was introduced to ChatGPT by someone who had it write an editorial on a certain topic in my “style.” Intriguing enough. But then it was told to translate the editorial into Russian. It did so, instantly — and I have it on good authority that, while hardly artful, the Russian was quite serviceable.

And what about spoken language? I was in Belgium not long ago, and I watched various tourists from a variety of nations use instant speech translation apps to render their own languages into English and French. The newer ones can even reproduce the tone of the speaker’s voice; a leading model, iTranslate, publicizes that its Translator app has had 200 million downloads so far.

I don’t think these tools will ever render learning foreign languages completely obsolete. Real conversation in the flowing nuances of casual speech cannot be rendered by a program, at least not in a way that would convey full humanity. Take, for example, my announcing that “Tomorrow I start my diet.” It’s a subtle thing, but note that by leaving out the words “will” or “am going to,” I am conveying a certain additional drama, the implication that I may have delayed the diet for a while, and tomorrow I’m taking a deep breath and doing it. A typical translation would simply have me saying “Tomorrow I am going to start my diet,” which gets across the basic premise but does not carry quite the tone or implication I intended. And that’s to say nothing of typical conversational mishmashes such as “Yeah, no — what about the pesto?” or “I know — it kind of pops, doesn’t it?” Try translating those with an app.

But even if it may fail at genuine, nuanced conversation — for now, at least — technology is eliminating most of the need to learn foreign languages for more utilitarian purposes. The old-school language textbook scenarios, of people reserving hotel rooms or ordering meals in the language of the country they are visiting — “Greetings. Please bring me a glass of lemonade and a sandwich!” — will now be obsolete. And practicality is the reason most people want to learn a new language, at least beyond a few salutary words and phrases as a sign of respect or engagement.

The cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, in a quirky recent piece for The Atlantic, argues that his diligent, Sisyphean, but joyous attempts to master foreign languages (from near-perfect Italian to approximate Mandarin) have been an expression of his humanity, one that the new technology will deprive people of engaging in. But while I am ever in sincere awe of Hofstadter’s behemothian mind, I have spent my own life learning languages to varying degrees, and I have never considered my partial successes in them to be an expression of my spirit. The first time I read a novel in a foreign language, I was missing about two words per paragraph. It was fun, but I didn’t think of my abbreviated take on the text to be my “personal version” of ”The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I just still had work to do.

But not all people enjoy that kind of work. As the writer Graeme Wood has noted, to actively enjoy piecing together how other languages work is an individual quirk, not a human universal. Some may be surprised to learn, for instance, that even many excellent linguists are not what I like to call “language-heads” who want to learn new languages just for the joys of discovery or accomplishment. Obsessive language learners have come to call themselves the polyglot community over the past couple of decades, and I am one of them, to an extent. As such, I know well how hard it can be to recognize that most human beings are numb to this peculiar desire.

I think of how, as a linguistically excitable lad, I would have had my circuits blown by the cornucopia of foreign languages in my current Queens neighborhood. For my own kids, however, it is just a mundane daily experience. Or I think of a very well-educated and cultured person who genially told me that he skipped over the foreign words in my books on language that weren’t in French or Spanish. (After that conversation, I started using fewer of those words.) In this, he is normal, while I harbor an eccentricity.

Most human beings are interested much less in how they are saying things, and which language they are saying them in, than in what they are saying. Learning to express this what — beyond the very basics — in another language is hard. It can be especially hard for us Anglophones, as speaking English works at least decently in so many places. American pop music is in our language, and thus a foreign language rarely entices as a seductive code to help interpret our AirPod enthusiasms (although I sense a mini-movement of that kind toward Korean because of K-pop).

To polyglots, foreign languages are Mount Everests daring us to climb them — a metaphor used by Hofstadter in his article. But to most people, they are just a barrier to get to the other side of. As mesmerized as I will always be, given my personal and professional interests, by the thousands of languages out there, the Tower of Babel story gets at something. If there had only ever been a single language in the world, it is hard to imagine that anyone would wish there were 7,000 different ones, such that speakers of one couldn’t communicate with speakers of the others. The new technology is getting us past that challenge.

After all, despite the sincere and admirable efforts of foreign language teachers nationwide, fewer than one in 100 American students become proficient in a language they learned in school. Immersion programs, if begun early, can actually imprint a foreign language into a child’s brain. But there are just 3,600 such programs in nearly 100,000 public schools nationwide. Amid the endless challenges our educational system faces, it’s unclear how widespread we can ever expect them to become.

I know: A foreign language is a window into a new way of processing the world. But even beyond the fact that this idea has been rather oversold, can we really say the humble level of French or Spanish we and our classmates usually picked up in school really granted us a new lens on the world and our lives in it? And if our goals are more limited and practical — for instance, getting directions to the bus station in Rome — technology now makes that possible at the press of a button.

Because I love trying to learn languages and am endlessly fascinated by their varieties and complexities, I am working hard to wrap my head around this new reality. With an iPhone handy and an appropriate app downloaded, foreign languages will no longer present most people with the barrier or challenge they once did.

Learning to genuinely speak a new language will hardly be unknown. It will continue to beckon, for instance, for those actually relocating to a new country. And it will persist with people who want to engage with literature or media in the original language, as well as those of us who find pleasure in mastering these new codes just because they are “there.” In other words, it will likely become an artisanal pursuit, of interest to a much smaller but more committed set of enthusiasts. And weird as that is, it is in its way a kind of progress.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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