The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #12 November / December 2014
The Ultimate Fate of Language Learning
by Erik Zidowecki
November / December 2014 | 

Many people spend a huge amount of time, energy, and in some cases, money, in their efforts to learn other languages. Since you are reading this article, you are probably one of them. The reasons for which you and others pursue this goal will be varied, but I am guessing that most honest answer is that they are drawn to it. They feel a need and desire to learn other languages, often with a great passion, and even if they choose not to, they still feel a tug each time they hear another language spoken or see a foreign text.

But how often do people give a specific goal they wish to reach with all this learning, apart from learning all they can. Sometimes they look into pursuing careers that would put their knowledge to use, but those can be very limited in variety. The job pool is mainly restricted to becoming a translator, interpreter, language teacher, or some kind of service in which the knowledge of another language could be of some help, such as tourism or business clerk.

Some of these roles are being threatened by new technologies as well as a change in which our society functions in general. While I am sure people will continue learning languages no matter what happens, I do wonder about the eventual fate of the practice of learning languages.

Interpreters and Translators

An image of US Secretary of State John Kerry appears on a TV screen in an interpreters' booth

The most common suggestion for what to do with your awesome language skills is to become an interpreter or a translator. The former has you converting one language to another instantly between two or more parties, while the latter has you converting between languages in writing. While they sound like the same job, they take very different mindsets, and a person that might love doing one might despise another. Furthermore, just being able to speak another language does not automatically make you qualified for either job.

Entering into one of these jobs may also not match with why you enjoyed learning in the first place. Language learning is a great way to get to know other people and cultures because it allows you to talk freely about anything. By comparison, these jobs are normally restrictive, focusing on a single subject matter or situation. For example, if you were to become an interpreter with the United Nations, the majority of your language usage would be geopolitical and diplomatic in nature. You would not be talking about the wonderful cuisine of Italy or the unique cinema industry of Japan.

The same pertains to being a translator. You would be involved in handling business or legal documents a great deal of the time, rather than literature or other entertaining text. The connections to the people and culture would most likely be confined to the time outside of your job.

FEMA Vietnamese translator helps with individual assistance interview after Hurricane Ike

Even if one of these jobs sounds appealing, there is a question of how long they will be around. All around the world, countries are making specific languages the ones which everyone should be learning and using. In a great many of these cases, that language is English. While the American excuse of "everyone speaks English" hasn't quite come true yet, there are definite signs that the world is moving in that direction. Even if it isn't English, there is a constant pressure to make the language used in government, business, and science uniform.

When that uniformity becomes the normal, the role of interpreters and translators, at least in those positions, will be greatly diminished. When everyone can speak English, your language skills will be unnecessary.

Axillary Languages

If that kind of prediction sounds familiar to you, perhaps it is because it isn't new. People have been trying to achieve some kind of "international language" for years, in the form of an artificially created "auxiliary" language. Such a language would not replace any language, so it would not be the favouring of one over the other. Rather, the auxiliary language "helps" in the communication by being a common language that both parties would use. The most famous of these languages is Esperanto, although others have also been proposed.

International axillary languages, or IALs, are meant to be easy to learn, with simplified vocabulary and grammar which are also similar to many popular languages, like English and Spanish. The use of IALs has never really caught in the international community, for a variety of reasons, and instead are normally instead listed among the foreign languages one could learn.

But what if one was adopted? What if the UN decided to start using Esperanto among all its leaders and diplomats? Would there be a need for interpreters and translators any more? Furthermore, what if it were to become the official language for government and businesses as well? You could pretty much forget about those big interpreter and translator jobs, at least on the global stage.

It's odd to think that the creation and learning of a language would actually lead to a decline in language learning. I don't mean among the people that love to learn them just for the pleasure. I'm talking about the people that chose to learn them as a means to a career. It is similar to the person that masters the art of brewing beer, then makes a perfectly automated system to do it which eliminates the jobs of hundreds of brewers.

I wonder if all the people I have met over the years that spoke so highly about the use of Esperanto understood that if their dream came true – everyone started using it – they would potentially kill their own careers in languages.

Machine Translators

Someday soon, portable machine interpreters could make the need for learning another language obsolete

Now, you can probably console yourself that, even without interpreter and translator jobs, there are still probably plenty of opportunities to put your language passion to work, right? Not everyone would be learning an IAL, so your services would still be needed in the private service sector, like tourism or local businesses. When you enter that little café in France and want to order something tasty, or you want to purchase something in the marketplace in India, and you don't speak the language, you will hope that the person serving you will be able to speak yours. You could be that serving person, able to handle customers from other countries with skill, ease, and a smile. Businesses often love having multilingual employees, because it gives them an instant edge over their competition.

But is that position so secure? Is it possible that sometime in the future, customers and sellers will be able to communicate without learning another language? Given the current push and advances in translation technology, the answer is a definite "yes".

It has been a concept in science fiction for decades, this ability to use a machine as a translator, making it easy for two different cultures to interact easily. Speak your language into a box and have it instantly converted for the other person. Brilliant!

All the parts to do this have been in development for years and are finally becoming common place. We now have software that can take human speech and convert it into written text. We also have advanced voice synthesis to the point that it sounds almost fluid and human, even in different languages. The last component is machine translations, and while most language learners cringe at that idea, the technology has actually advanced a great deal beyond the painful, garbled mess that such applications used to produce. Combining all three things together - interpretation, translation, synthesis - and we have a universal translator.

A cartoon showing how a machine could be used to translate one language to another

There are already a number of devices that are being designed that boast this capability. I have seen a commercial which shows a young man using his phone in Italy to ask an elderly Italian gentleman about the area, with the phone acting as a non-human interpreter. Even though that reality might still be a few years off, there is no doubt that it will be here. What then?

I could see such devices being used not only by tourists, but by businesses as well, for everything from the local street vendor to the large supermarkets. They could be portable devices, or small boxes with microphones and speakers. If such devices became available on a large scale, how much value would be placed on having a multilingual employee? "English spoken here" would lose all impact when you have a device that can "speak" thirty-two languages.

Lost in Translation

I'm not trying to paint a gloom and doom scenario for languages. None of these things would immediately kill off languages, nor would it end people's desires to learn other languages. These possible changes to the speaking world would never be able to replace the actual learning and speaking of another language, because there is so much more of humanity tied to that natural connection. While you might be able to use your phone to ask for directions in Faroese, that would never replace the feeling of belonging you would get from singing ancient ballads with the locals after dinner. Esperanto might allow you to talk to the passport agent at the airport, but it couldn't replace the joy of swapping travel stories with the people you meet on the flight.

And languages have been with us, well, since man first wanted to communicate with others in any meaningful way, so they aren't going away. The real question is where will your passion for learning them be applied?

The Ultimate Fate of Language Learning
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Leonid Dzhepko: Samara Translation Round Table
NTT: Cartoon
Petey: Interpreter booth; FEMA translator; Translator illustration

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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