My flight had been delayed four hours in Paris. As I waited in line for my hotel and meal voucher, a gray-haired woman came up next to me, looking extremely worried. She said something in a language I couldn’t understand and held up a ticket. I tried speaking English, then Italian -- without success. A few people in front of me also joined in, but this poor woman, getting more upset by the moment, could not seem to make herself understood.
Frustrated for her, I finally pulled out my phone, launched the Google Translate app, and, after miming how she just needed to speak into it, she carefully asked her question into the palm of my hand.
The app recognized her language as Bulgarian and translated it into English -- not perfect English, but good enough that I realized that the airline had sent her to a fully booked hotel, and she was told to return having no clue why.
That app was a lifesaver in this situation: I spoke back to her through the translator and even assisted helping her at the desk before they could find a Bulgarian translator in the airport. Without the technology, I would’ve been useless.
But just because I have an app on my phone doesn’t mean I wasn’t sitting there wishing I knew Bulgarian. Advancing language technology has drastically changed the game on international relations and how the world functions in general, but is it replacing actual language learning? I don’t think so.
Learning a Language Restructures Your Brain
First we have to have a little bit of a background in the science of language learning, which is still greatly under development and will continue to be as we discover how the brain works linguistically. So far, we've learned that language learning restructures your brain in positive ways. Even those born bilingual have a different brain structure beginning from birth.
Many studies have proven that the bilingual brain is able to comprehend information better due to “coactivation”, which means once someone is bilingual, (or tri or more) you cannot simply just shut off a language. For the rest of their lives, they need to balance the two.
This is just one study in thousands that illustrate the benefits of learning another language -- and those are just chemical improvements. We didn't even touch on how your understanding of the world can change; plus, your connection to people will skyrocket if you can speak their language fluently.
Beyond the bonus of giving your brain a workout, we also have to think about the basic benefits of being able to speak more than one language: interacting with different cultures, being able to work in more areas of the world, and being able to translate and aid others that are monolingual. Plus, being able to talk in front of people without them understanding (just kidding). But truthfully, one of the only drawbacks of learning a new language is the frustration of actually studying and learning it.
How Technology Has Changed Language Learning
Learning language through computer applications is not a new practice. Technology has been around language learning for quite awhile now. In 2006, I was heading to Italy for the first time with my family and I went to the library and rented a book and CD of Italian language and put it onto my iPod and listened to it every night before bed. Did it help? I absolutely spoke perfect polite Italian phrases and successfully asked for a bank in Sicily. But I still had to remember the phrases, learn the words, and pronunciation.
In schools, many teachers use recorded conversations that are played through a (for some reason) usually old-school boom box in order to have students be able to listen to a fluent conversation in an area where this may be difficult otherwise. Audio and video have been proven to help tremendously in the area of language learning and are now common practice -- but in recent years, the technology has become even more advanced. This both promotes learning of languages, but also, unfortunately, demotes it.
Rosetta Stone and Apps like Duolingo
The progression from CD based language learning programs come with an online feature. Rosetta Stone promotes itself as “the most intuitive [language learning program], using a mixture of words, pictures, speaking and listening. There are no books, no memorizing, no grammar tables, so it's actually fun.”
What Rosetta Stone attempts to create is a language learning tool that does not allow the learner to translate the new language into their mother tongue, which really makes language learning difficult because of the inner translation that has to be done.
Instead, Rosetta Stone has attempted to teach students as if they are learning the language through immersion -- all while sitting at your computer. It’s an incredible advancement and truly does work, though with a hefty price tag.
Duolingo is the next step in the progression of linguistics and technology: an online app that can conveniently be used on mobile devices. Duolingo mirrors Rosetta Stone in that it has voice recognition which rates your pronunciation, as well as grammar, spelling, and comprehension. With daily reminders to practice and the option to compete with your friends to learn the language, the app uses the advancements of the internet in order to advance your comprehension of your second, third, or fourth language. The best part? Duolingo is FREE.
Though the advancements with computer programs and phone applications have truly transformed the language learning arena, even they are being trumped by even new technology that is not only making it even easier to communicate more quickly between languages but eliminating the need to actively learn another language altogether.
I attended the Open Forum of the World Trade Organization last year in Geneva, Switzerland. The WTO, in their words, is “the only international organization dealing with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.” This also means there were a LOT of languages roaming around in that event. So how do they all communicate?
Before various technological advancements, there had to be a common language and only those that knew that language could be delegates in international meetings like this one. At one point, it was French. Now, it leans more towards English. However, the need for a universal language has really been reduced to almost oblivion in the past decades.
The WTO has a microphone and an earpiece in front of each attendee. If someone stood and spoke to the room in French, all I needed to do was put my headpiece in, turn the dial to English, and an in-house translator would be translating for them in real time.
So instead of the entire room needing to learn French, Arabic, English, Spanish, and more, you have a handful of specific people doing it as their profession. No, this doesn't mean that language learning is obsolete, but it still means that technology is slowly overriding the need to actively learn a language in order to understand others.
As technology advances, we see this trend creeping into the software we use in our daily lives. Skype is also getting in on the linguistic revolution with their own real-time translation app that can help anyone from international families to businesses communicate much more easily and quickly.
Like my airport experience, technology has allowed communication between cultures and languages without the long process of learning a language by practicing and immersion for hours and months at a time. And, it has, in some instances, eliminated the necessity for language learning. However, this doesn't mean we should stop learning completely.
Why Language Learning is Still Valuable
Technology Can Be Unreliable
In the near future, I can see these translation devices employed constantly in emergency situations. Syrian refugees arriving in Greece, for example, may only speak Arabic. On many occasions throughout the past few years, I have seen volunteers asking for anyone to help translate for these poor people. If devices like this were provided to them, the situation would improve.
But what if Wi-Fi wasn't available, or what happens if your battery died at a critical moment? In emergency situations or when unexpected things happen, technology may malfunction, and suddenly, you'll become monolingual again. Learning a language takes an awful amount of time and effort, but it'll be a skill you can keep forever -- and you won't have to worry about battery life.
Technology Can't Translate Emotions
I can now proudly say I am, according to monolingual people, bilingual and to bilingual, almost bilingual. Somewhere in the middle, depending on who you talk to. I can absolutely tell you that learning a language through Google Translate is not even remotely close to making your brain do the impossible backflips for you to become fluent in another language.
But once you get used to your brain bouncing between two languages or more, you’ll really see that it affects you in so much more ways than you believe it would.
There’s a proverb in Czech that says “Learn a new language, get a new soul.” Many bilingual people have said they feel their personality changes when speaking one language or another. My husband speaks English, Italian, and Arabic fluently, as well as some Spanish. Even his own mother says he is a bit “stronger and more confident” in Arabic, while in Italian, he is more calm and reserved.
My Italian friend just told me recently I am a “different person” when speaking Italian, though I haven’t figured out just who I am yet. This is a phenomenon that hasn’t been studied much yet.
They have come to the possible conclusion that “the bicultural bilinguals in…studies were behaving biculturally, that is, adapting to the context they were in…bilinguals use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people…Different contexts and domains trigger different impressions, attitudes, and behaviors. What is taken as a personality shift due to a change of language may have little, if anything, to do with language itself.”
In short, it means that even if you have an implant in your ear translating for you and the other person, the contact or the emotions behind the language may not translate. We aren’t that far yet -- and we may never be.
There are books that have been translated and lost all of their meaning. There have been movies that do the same thing. Lost in translation is a phrase that is so frequently used because there is so much truth behind the meaning of just those words in the English language.
I remember when my friend got one of her first tattoos on her shoulder. What does it say? I asked her. She replied, Saudade. It was a word in Portuguese that is even difficult to define in English; translating doesn’t exist, because we don’t have a word for what it means.
There are even full articles on the topic of attempting to define Saudade in English. The closest definition for Saudade is "a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again..." Another commonly cited description was written by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo: "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy."
In the moment I learned Melaney’s definition of her word in her mother-tongue of Portuguese, I knew I had needed that word for years -- never really, even as a writer, being able to define the emotion that I had in my heart at the time. Saudade was it. It was hidden in another language that I had and probably never will speak, but it spoke to me.
How would I translate emotions through a computer? How can a device relay emotion when it's calculated to believe that each and every word has one specific, direct translation? I try to battle this message every day. When I ask my husband to translate a phrase into Italian, he routinely throws about seven different phrases back at me -- asking about the context, who I am speaking to, what do I “really” want to say.
A computer program may at some point become so intelligent that this translation could happen -- but what happens when the power goes out? Or when you go overseas to some area where the Wi-Fi isn’t as strong or a village that just doesn’t have those batteries you need? If you lose that device, you’ll be a sitting duck in a pond of anatra. And you will not be happy.
But learning a language yourself? Yes, it takes time, and it perhaps isn't as convenient as turning a button on, but remember: that skill stays forever.