Saturday, March 5, 2016

Bad for America; good(ish) for the globe: the far-reaching consequences of universal translation

A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal argues that within 10 years it will no longer be necessary to learn foreign languages. Instead, smartphones will immediately translate into your own language whatever the person talking to you is saying. A small earpiece will whisper into your ear, in perfect idiomatic English (or whatever you select as your first language), in a voice and tone that matches that of your interlocutor, and with only a split-second delay, exactly what she is saying. Parallel technology at the her end will do the same for her. Thus, any two speakers from any of the world’s spoken languages (signed languages are trickier) will be able (sooner for the more commonly spoken languages; later for the less common) to engage in barrier-free conversations that don’t require anyone to know anything beyond his/her native language.

If this actually happens, there’s certainly much to be gained. A number of languages around the world are waning—both in numbers of native speakers and in how well those native speakers maintain their proficiency--largely because policy makers, parents, and/or students themselves think students should focus on English, Chinese, and other more “useful” languages. Such trends can now reverse course. After all, if all languages are immediately, seamlessly translatable, all languages are equally useful. Also saved, besides endangered languages, are instructional hours: all that time learning English or Chinese that can now (or so one hopes) be spent on other academic subjects—including the finer points of expressing oneself in one’s native language, and (until we have apps for these as well) understanding older, more complex written forms of one’s native language. Finally, eradicating linguistic barriers means drastically reducing cultural barriers— potentially drastically improving cross-cultural relations.

But there are also some interesting downsides--for example the much-discussed cognitive benefits of multi-lingualism. Such benefits may motivate some people—particularly the linguistically minded—to continue learning other languages. But the diminished motivation at both policy and personal levels, drastically reducing multi-lingualism worldwide, may also drastically reduce the emergent global intelligence of the human race.

Then there are the specific losers. Right now, native speakers of the “useful” languages—of which English is currently foremost—have an enormous academic and economic advantage over non-native speakers. I’ve often wondered, for example here, just how much of America’s continued preeminence in the world—given how crummy our schools are and how poorly they prepare students for non-menial jobs—is a function of its linguistic advantage. Think of all the college graduates who break into the workforce by teaching ESL—whether here in this country to recent immigrants, or abroad in East Asia, Eastern Europe, or Africa. Think of all the highly-industrious immigrants who still choose America—even as other countries become more inviting—because the language they learned in school was English (rather than German or Swedish or Swahili). Think of all the hours that Americans don’t need to devote to teaching and learning basic English that other countries do have to spend. Think of all the international students who will no longer need to pass the TOEFL in order to compete against native-born Americans for spots in American universities—their universal translators now enabling them to understand American lectures and participate in American seminars. And think of what will happen to all the jobs for which native English speakers have had a special advantage--once the playing field levels out to the native speakers of all languages around the globe.

So much the better for the world in general; so much the worst for Americans—until, that is, we finally get out educational act together.

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