Wednesday 12 July 2023

Is learning a language still important?

When my son was choosing his GCSE options at the beginning of the year I was really surprised to find out that studying a language wasn't mandatory. He has chosen to study Spanish, which as a language graduate I'm pleased about, but it did make me think about the future importance of language learning.

I studied German at university and I've also learned some French and Dutch. I enjoyed learning about how languages have evolved over time, and although my almost fluent German is rusty I can still read it well. But although my languages have sometimes come in useful while travelling, I've never ended up needing them for a job. 

At one time I thought I might go into translation, but you need post-graduate qualifications and in the end my degree was enough to get me a decent job. However I'm quite glad that I didn't opt for a translation career path, because I think that these jobs will be swiftly taken over by technology, if they haven't already.

Last year we went to Athens and I was a little daunted because not only do I have no experience of Greek as a language it is uses a different alphabet. However this was not a problem in the slightest because we all downloaded Google Lens. All you need to do is point your phone camera at the text and it will translate it there for you, on your screen and in real time! It felt like witchcraft to me, although my son pointed out that it's quite simple technology really, just text recognition and Google translate which has been around for a long time. 

Page from a German dictionary
Photo credit Waldemar via Unsplash

I've noticed that the children use Google translate to help with their homework and it seems to work really well, it seems to be accurate and reasonably natural speech. It will read out the text, useful if you are talking with someone and you don't need to worry about pronunciation. I think that it definitely works well enough to do most types of translation, perhaps with a small amount of proof reading required from someone who doesn't even need to know the original language. Of course literary translation is a slightly different matter, and languages which use symbols can be more tricky when it comes to different meanings according to the context, but it seems as though the AI can handle it and if it can't yet it will soon.

I never would have thought I'd feel this way, but it does seem to me that as time goes on it makes more sense to teach children in schools how to use AI tools effectively rather than teaching them a language from scratch. Some people can pick up languages easily and enjoy the challenge of learning them, a bit like fitting together a puzzle. But many people just want to translate signs that they see in a different country or communicate the basics in a different language, and the technology can easily deal with that. 

I'd love to know what others think, should we encourage children to study a language even if they have no interest?

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