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The Real Reason Your Translation App Will Never Replace Language Learning

By Talene Boodaghians     Mar 3, 2018

Of all the classroom subjects technology is poised to change, perhaps none stoke the imagination quite like language learning. As wearable tech and machine translation become increasingly sophisticated, many see them as the future. In-ear technology promises to make 40 languages comprehensible in approximately two seconds lag time. Wearables and translators are undoubtedly handy tools. They make life easier. If you’ve ever communicated solely with facial expressions, gestures and onomatopoeia, then you understand their value.

I’m an applied linguist. I’ve worked in K-12 contexts in Armenia and Spain. I also teach remotely and write content for an app-based English language-learning product. So, I’m an ed-tech enthusiast and a classroom teacher, enthralled by how online learning is reshaping education, but also apt to turn down a tablet when a piece of chalk will do.

Recently, I’ve seen real-time, in-ear technology used to suggest that language learning, beyond a certain age, is somehow a waste of time. “Learn culture, not language” might seem like advice for the future, especially since wearable tech is increasingly capable of doing our linguistic heavy lifting. But, this couldn’t be more misguided, and here are the four most compelling reasons why.

Language learning is good for your brain.

Being bilingual offers a variety of cognitive benefits. Research strongly suggests that bilingual children have better working memories compared to their monolingual counterparts. Plus, bilingualism has even been found to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Language learning gives you power.

When you know another language, you are not dependent on people or machines for translation. You own your successes and your failures. You can be sure they won’t come from someone else’s bad translation.

Language learning makes you a more successful negotiator.

People are more inclined to agree with you if they like you. And what makes someone likeable? Shared interests. Common ground. When shared language, without wearable tech, is the starting point, there’s trust from the get-go.

Language learning offers humbling reminders.

A friend of mine, who I made thanks, in part, to a non-native language, recounted an anecdote that illustrates why languages are worth learning even in the face of increasingly sophisticated technological innovation.

In my friend’s hometown, there is a statue that everyone refers to as “the statue with the horse.” If you’re a local, the spot is common knowledge. When my friend had an international visitor, the two arranged to meet at “the statue with the horse.” However, when my friend arrived, nobody was waiting for her. Her visitor was equally befuddled and waiting at “a statue with a horse,” but not “the statue with a horse.”

This is language learning! It’s the realization that we can be right, our friend can be right and still, we might not end up in exactly the same place. It’s important to be reminded from time to time that we’re not at the center of the universe. Having taught English in Armenia, Spain and Malta, I have noticed that some children, particularly those who grow up learning other languages, are keenly aware of this from a very young age. Native English speakers, myself included, aren’t humbled with or challenged by “the statue with the horse” scenario quite enough.

The K-12 Implications

Since 40 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. are reporting foreign language teacher shortages, I fear that “learn culture, not language” will be used to justify the removal of foreign language instruction from K-12 contexts. If this seems far-fetched, it’s worth noting that foreign language instruction in the U.S. is already on the decline. In eight states, less than 13 percent of children learn a language other than English.

The classroom-based system in the U.S. is far from perfect. But rather than demonize teachers, the very people able and willing to do the hard work day in and day out, let’s evaluate the greater context in which students are learning languages other than English. There’s no incentive quite like real life. So, for as long as the U.S. remains an oppressively English dominant society, it’s unlikely that even the most qualified teachers will be able to singlehandedly guide students toward multilingualism.

But there’s hope! And this is where I see a promising future for edtech. Students without opportunities to use their target languages in their own communities can use Verbling to chat with native speakers. Teachers, too, can use this as a professional development tool. For more structured courses designed specifically for K-12 classrooms and language labs, Transparent Language offers real-time courses and customizable, curriculum aligned content. Mango Languages describes itself as a “fun-infused way to learn a new language” with 70 plus languages on the platform. It’s a wide, virtual world out there with an increasing number of edtech resources on the scene.

In Armenian, a language I began learning in a university classroom, there’s an idiom that translates roughly to, “The more languages you know, the more people you become.” Increasingly sophisticated in-ear devices may one day be able to translate this idiom, but it’s less likely that they’ll be able to impart the emotions and memories you’d get by sticking it out for the long haul.

Language learning demands a willingness to pursue the seemingly impossible. It requires bravery in the face of repeated embarrassment and failure. It’s humbling and trying, but also tremendously enriching. Young people need these soft skills to make lasting contributions in a variety of fields, but perhaps most relevant to this discussion, they need these soft skills to build tomorrow’s innovative technology. So, let’s keep teaching language.

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