learning a language

So, Lingos.co is a language start up aiming to connecting language teachers with students but surely with all the advances in technology soon we really won’t need to bother learning a language.. will we?

Indiegogo.com recently featured a start up business crowdfunding a gadget called SIGMO – “a voice translating device that will revolutionise the way you are able to communicate and understand other languages”. Apparently it will be able to instantly translate more than 25 languages, which sounds amazing!

Already we have Google Translate where web pages are automatically  translated in seconds to your chosen language and more languages are being added frequently. There are also oodles of Smartphone or tablet applications to help translate or interpret languages, help is constantly at hand, literally.

We’re really not far off Douglas Adams’ vision of the Babel fish which, once slipped inside our ear, would enable us to speak and understand every language in the universe. So why do so many people still want to learn a language?

Essentially we learn language to communicate with one another and whilst it seems we are on the cusp of technology being able to take the strain so that we won’t have to bother, it will still take some time to perfect the technology and a further leap for us to trust technology to translate what we want to say.

As language learners know all too well one word can have more than one meaning…and some words can be oh-so similiar, dangerously so! To translate or interpret well you need to understand context – let’s think how many mistakes are made using the SAME language when trying to communicate by a text, a tweet, an email or a phonecall unless you are able to understand the context or tone it’s very easy for miscommunications to occur. Foreign language teachers do not recommend using Google Translate – here’s a link to a student forum where they discuss whether teachers REALLY know if students have used the service: http://bit.ly/ggltrnss2t which really highlights the mess which can occur.

Accents, colloquialisms and dialects will all be extremely difficult for an device to understand let alone nuances, sarcasm and tone..

Presumably the more complicated the interaction the less trusted technology would be. Imagine a multimillion deal agreed thanks to an automated translation/ interpretation service – who is to blame when it the deal comes unstuck and it all comes down to faulty translating? At the UN and EU all interpreters translate back into their mother tongue. This is because fluency and accuracy will always be best in the language you first learnt. Using your mother tongue to explain what you have understood minimizes the margin of error – fewer faults are made and compromise, created by seeking the nearest correct word, is unnecessary. But gadgets don’t have a mother tongue..

Interestingly whilst the rise of language learning technology continues apace the number of language students also continues to grow and grow.

More than ever before we live in times of accelerated migration, our world feels smaller and smaller as we become ever more connected and constantly aware of news from all around the world; spoken and translated in a myriad of wonderful languages. We move home and travel in search of work or because of love, family and romance. Both our workplaces and our families are becoming increasingly multilingual.

It was recently reported by one Greek language school that students learning Mandarin had risen from just five in a class three years ago to over a hundred this summer. In an ever changing world learning the right language at the right time can put you ahead of the game.

Employers are looking for people with more than one language – it puts you one step ahead of the rest, not only that but employers need employees who match their customers and with a greater multilingual society than ever before the more languages you speak and perhaps the more unusual they are; the more useful you could be.

And when it comes to the human brain – well, it never stops learning, it’s not a switch we can turn off. Stay in a country where you don’t speak the language long enough and no matter how resistant you are – you will learn some new words! Couples with different mother tongues will naturally absorb some of the language of their partner..(dependent on the length of time spent together!) Can you imagine a scenario whereby a couple only communicate via an interpretation gadget?!

Perhaps all these translator tools and interpreting gadgets are simply helpful to get learners off the ground – to provide help and reassurance when in dire straits and to remind old hands of a forgotten word or two but otherwise there’s nothing quite like learning how to say it yourself.

Finally, what about the obvious: What do you do when the battery runs out?!