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Media: Language Learning versus Language (Translation) Technology

Submitter: Brent Woo

Submitter Email: bwoo@linguistlist.org
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Computational Linguistics

Media Body: Among calls for multilingualism, support for bilingual education, and
education in foreign language, there is also the rising trend of
advancing
language technology. It is debatable whether society is moving toward
a state
more dependent on technology, but these multiple dynamics call into
question the value of learning a language for the sake of
communication.

Just a sample of the many calls for prioritizing language learning:

Fox News reports that NASA is now requiring astronauts to have a
certain
level of proficiency in Russian.
<http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/10/05/why-is-nasa-teaching-us-
astronauts-russian/?test=faces>

Dr. Anthony Seldon warns that Great Britain is losing global relevance
because of its aversion to language learning. The article on BBC cites
falling
trends in foreign language study.
<http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-
15189033>

There is a movement to prioritize language study in the Republic of
Ireland,
which 'has the highest proportion of citizens in the EU who say they do
not
know any other language apart from their native tongue.' Perhaps
most scary
is the ambivalent responses of people 'on the street' given at the
bottom of
the Irish Times article.
<http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2011/1006/1224305331
086.ht
ml>

And finally, Forbes Insights published the results of their study, which
shows
that overwhelmingly businesses and companies rely on ad hoc
translation to
overcome language barriers.
<http://www.marketwatch.com/story/forbes-
insights-study-outlines-the-importance-of-multilingualism-in-business-
2011-10-
06>

On the other side:

Facebook announces today a new inline translator that sources
Microsoft
Bing to automatically translate content of the site into a specific
language.
<http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-20116697-93/facebook-launches-
its-own-
universal-translator/>

I don't wish to present a false dichotomy, but with the improvement of
Internet
language technology, you cannot deny that some would now question
the
need to study a language, if the Internet is able to translate (decently)
with
much less human effort. With the Facebook example, it is no longer
necessary (although of course the option exists) to know any foreign
languages at all to understand friends' multilingual posts. Even long
academic
treatises and articles can be translated. On the other hand, there are
still
many domains in which the Internet is not readily available, such as
spontaneous conversation or places without Internet access.
Issue Number: 22.3946
Date Posted: October 06, 2011

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