Travelling abroad used to mean taking a pocket dictionary or phrase book, if you didn’t speak the country’s language. Then, smartphones and websites like Google Translate or Babelfish became sufficiently sophisticated that they superseded the need for travel dictionaries. Now, your phone has the capacity to instantly translate text that it reads on signs or menus in many languages.
Technology expert Alec Ross has taken it one step further and argued that within the next 10 years or so, small earpieces with built in microphones will be able to provide an instant translation facility for those travelling overseas.
The end of language learning?
The development of such a tool could, in theory, be the beginning of the end for language learning. Persuading pupils to spend years learning a language, when a small device could essentially provide them with fluency, may well be a hard task. According to Max Ventilla, founder of AltSchool Brooklyn,
“…if the reason you are having your child learn a foreign language is so that they can communicate with someone in a different language twenty years from now – well, the relative value of that is changed, surely, by the fact that everyone is going to be walking around with live-translation apps.”
The importance of nuance
Language translation features are already built into social media channels like Facebook and Twitter, and YouTube video creators now have the ability to quickly and easily translate their content into any languages they choose.
However, there is an important difference between the approach undertaken by these different channels. Facebook and Twitter use machine translation, with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently advising that, “the translation is not great.”
YouTube takes a different approach, with users able to access professional human translators, who are capable of producing superior translations to those produced by machines, due to the human ability to understand meaning and nuance, rather than simply undertake the literal translation of individual words.
So what does the future hold?
This comparison indicates the flaws in relying on machines to provide translation services. It’s certainly feasible that language learning will be seen as less important in the future by those who plan to rely on technology for their translation needs, such as overseas travellers. However, it seems equally likely that professional translation services will still be needed in order to provide accurate translations that respect the target language in a way that technology is unable to do.
Do you believe that technology will remove language barriers in under a decade? Or will there always be a need for professional human translation? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.