Will emerging technology make language learning and teaching a thing of the past? Neil Ballantyne, the British Council's mobile learning manager, investigates.
All you have to do, to understand any language in the universe, is put a small, yellow, leech-like fish in your ear, and you will instantly hear the translation of the speaker in your head.
This is the description of the babel fish one of the oddest things in the universe according to Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Although we are unlikely to discover anything as wondrous as the babel fish anytime soon, the idea of real-time translation is coming closer and closer to fruition with advances in technology. Will this technology mark the end of language teaching? Should language teachers start looking for new careers now? Will learning a second language become as superfluous as the planet earth in Adams' comedy?
From Skype’s latest product page, here is their description:
'Skype Translator gives you the ability to speak another language without learning one. Simply set up a Skype video or voice call with someone who speaks another language and start talking.'
Wow. Sounds impressive. It’s easy to imagine how this could revolutionise international business meetings and reduce the need for learning a language. Imagine a business meeting of people who speak a variety of languages being able to communicate naturally in their own tongue and not having to worry about getting the nuances of a foreign language correct. Imagine working with colleagues from overseas and not having to insist on one common language. Imagine social events where you don’t need to speak to people directly but can do it through a screen instead.
OK, the last one is not so good and there are other drawbacks too. The Skype Translator is currently limited to Spanish and English. More are promised soon but it will take some time before the world’s languages are covered. And how accurate will this be? Videos of it in use show an impressive level of accuracy – with relatively straightforward conversation and well-managed turn-taking. But add any level of complexity and Skype Translator is going to struggle. I work in an environment with speakers of English who grew up using the British, North American and Hong Kong variants. A conversation with my colleagues invariably involves a bit of backtracking, explaining and rewording – even between the same languages. It's difficult to imagine how a real-time translation app could keep up with the unpredictable flow of everyday conversation.
As mentioned, Google has recently launched an update to their translation app, which incorporates a tool called Word Lens. This allows the use of your phone’s camera to view foreign texts and immediately translate them into your target language. Fantastic for signs and menus; less useful for spontaneous conversation.
A similar tool was also demoed as part of the Google Glass experiment, which involved overlaying translations or prompts for useful language onto the real world. This augmented reality, when travelling, would be amazing, although it seems further away now than before. The Google experiment was ended recently, partly because people couldn't get comfortable with these devices. There is probably some time to go before people are comfortable with using real-time translation devices when conversing too.
Real-time translation tools are likely to go through what is known as the Hype Cycle. This is a common rule of thumb about how new technologies are viewed. First, we will see inflated expectations whereby people imagine the world transformed. This will no doubt be linked to inflated doomsday predictions for language teachers. Next will come the trough of disillusionment, when people try out the nascent technology and realise it’s not as ground-breaking or game-changing as they may have imagined. Then will come enlightenment, as the products improve in performance and are seen to be realistic and useful. Finally, we settle into the plateau of productivity, when these tools will become part of mainstream use.
These tools will be useful, but will they replace the need to learn a language? No. They might be fine for a basic meeting, but what about socialising? Travelling? Formulating trust and understanding? Having to rely on an intermediary technology will not be as good as being able to converse in that language.
People learn languages to understand culture better, to make travel and business easier, and for the sheer enjoyment and challenge of it. Scientists know that there are many cognitive benefits to learning and speaking a second language such as improved memory. Although today’s real-time translation apps will make life easier, particularly the challenges of international communication, they will not replace the reasons people do and should learn languages any time soon.
But what about in the more distant future? Will improvements in this technology mean the end of language learning? It seems unlikely. People will still want to talk to each other without a technical middleman. And as for teaching, will it mean the end of language teachers? I don't think so. Technology will not replace teachers; rather, teachers who are willing to embrace technology will replace teachers who are not.