What’s the point in learning languages when we can just use Google translate?

by Karen Forbes

“What’s the point in learning languages when we can just use Google translate?”

A few days ago, I was asked whether I thought language learning would become redundant in the foreseeable future because of the development of machine learning and translation technology. Or as some of my, shall we say, slightly less enthusiastic former students might have put it: “But what’s the point in learning languages when we can just use Google translate?”

Language geek that I am, my first reaction was one of horror – of course language learning won’t become redundant, it’s important! But it got me thinking… what would a world devoid of language learning be like? Recent advances in technology, like Skype translator and Google Translate’s real-time voice and sign translation, is almost reminiscent of the futuristic Babel Fish depicted in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language”. At a very pragmatic, transactional level, this can have its advantages. When I think back to the number of times I’ve had to resort to a bizarre combination of pictionary and charades to try and ask for directions when lost in a far-flung country, I’ll admit that a Babel Fish-esque device may have come in handy (albeit much less entertaining to watch!)

But what would such a device mean for the way in which we communicate with and understand speakers of other languages? And what would it mean for the languages we choose to learn and the status of those languages globally? In his book The Last Lingua Franca, Nicholas Ostler argues that machine translation has the potential to liberate the world from the need to learn dominant world languages like English and can therefore preserve linguistic diversity. An interesting point, but I would argue that truly communicating with someone entails so much more than simply a literal translation of words. Language is complex, constantly changing, and is bound up with our culture, identity and the way we see the world. Many languages have words, idioms and metaphors which can never quite be captured in translation, such as the wonderful Danish word ‘hygge’ which suggests a feeling of cosiness and contentment. When we talk to people we use metaphors, idioms, wordplay and often draw on cultural nuances (perhaps subconsciously) to make connections and express ourselves – these are all difficult, if not impossible, to accurately convey through machine translation alone.

We can, of course, draw on translation technology as an aid to getting our message across, but if we don’t have at least some grasp of the language or cultural norms, how will we know if we are being misrepresented? One of my all-time favourite examples of this involves a rather unfortunate incident with a (supposedly) bilingual Welsh sign and an automated out-of-office response, but there are more serious implications here as well – creating a translation via a computer is simply not the same as creating a shared understanding between people. That’s not to mention all of the cognitive and social benefits of language learning which are currently being explored by various strands of the MEITS project – these can never be replaced by technology regardless of how advanced it becomes.

So, I’m not saying that online translators don’t have their uses, of course they do, but for all of the words and phrases they can translate, there is so much more to interpersonal and intercultural communication which cannot be replicated by any Babel Fish-esque device I can envisage. So, let’s continue to harness the power of technology to facilitate and support language learning, not to attempt to replace it.

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