Op-Ed: Rest In Peace Foreign Language Studies

I grew up watching the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. You no doubt remember the weekly “Wagon Train to the Stars” where Captain Kirk and crew would travel from one exotic planet to the next.

Even though the planets were different each week, and the aliens were mostly different (well, they all were mostly sort of shaped like humans and had zippers up their backs) they all seemed to be able to understand each other.

Even when a completely new alien species was discovered, the crew of the Enterprise was able to speak to them, and the aliens to the crew in perfect English. Amazing! How did that alien species learn English so quickly? (Heck, I spent five years in elementary school taking Spanish and all I could remember was “Buenos dias Señora Alred.”)

Star Trek of course, had an explanation as to why everyone could understand everyone else: The Universal Translator.

The Universal Translator was a device that everyone carried around that immediately translated languages. Don’t know how to speak Antarian? No worries. The Universal Translator can speak it for you. Want to avoid a fight with Klingons? Use the Universal Translator.

It was a convenient excuse that the writers used to explain how everyone could understand everyone else. (Okay Geeks, here is how the one in Star Trek worked) John Kennedy could have used a Universal Translator when he made his speech at the Berlin wall and proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which could have been interpreted as “I am a filled doughnut” or “I am a Berliner.”

Ever since Star Trek, most science fiction movies and series all sort of give the impression that everyone has a Universal Translator type device. How else could everyone in the Star Wars universe understand not only the other aliens but the machines that were beeping and burping at them?

Saturday Night Live recently made fun of the fact that everyone understands everyone else in this hilarious video featuring Charles Barkley as a confused Jedi knight.

Early on, online language translators were essentially word-to-word translators, taking a single word, and translating it verbatim. That was good for small sentences and short phrases, but for longer passages and speeches, the translation became a mess as idioms and colloquialisms got, as they say, lost in translation. Now, using artificial intelligence, which learns from repetition and past mistakes much like humans, the online translators are getting very close to human translations.

A few years back, when I would translate something online and ask a native speaker to see how good it was, it took only a few seconds before the human translator would burst into laughter, amused at how nonsensical the translation was, as the machine language was translating words for words.

Recently however, when I do the same experiment, I notice not laughter, but rather grammar correction, tense corrections, subtle changes. The sentences make sense now, it is just the grammar needs correcting. That is substantial progress in the course of just a few years. In their presentation “10 Facts about Jobs of the Future,” the World Bank predicted that machine translators will surpass their human counterparts by the year 2024. I believe it will happen sooner.

Not only are the machines themselves getting better, the delivery method that they are being delivered on are becoming more impressive as well.

Consider Microsoft Translator. Not only is it a website that can translate, pretty well, longer passages, it also allows users to start conversations that anyone can be a part of. I could start a conversation, and give out the code to the website, and anyone with the code could watch my spoken words, translated onscreen, in any one of dozens of languages that they chose from.

I could literally present to a room of Spanish, Chinese and German speakers and they would all be able to understand and talk back to me in their language while I was presenting. And the app version on iPhone and Android also allows you to do some pretty crazy amazing things as well:

You can carry on a two way conversation with someone at the same table you are at. You press the button to speak in English, it translates for them on their side of the screen on their language. You can also point to signs in other languages, and it can attempt to translate them. (This works well with well constructed signs with few fonts like menus, not so well with hand written ones.)

Skype, another Microsoft product, now has Skype Translator, which allows users to video conference one another and hear the words of the person at the other end spoken in real time in their language.

Here is what that looks like:

And it is not just Microsoft that has their hands in the translation world. Google is a big player, and Apple is starting to teach Siri how to translate conversations. And some companies are working on earbuds that will translate conversations on the fly.

You can see where this is heading. It is pretty clear that in a few years, the need for conversational foreign language as course of study will no longer be needed. No more conjugating Spanish verbs. No longer trying to understand where the umlaut goes in German. There will be no need, except for those that wish to pursue a college career in languages. But even there, the question I would ask is “why?” Duolingo and Rosetta Stone better rethink their business model.

Losing foreign languages as a course in school may or may not be a good thing, as foreign languages also teach about cultures as well. On the other hand, the vast majority of people on the planet will be able to carry on meaningful conversations with each other without having to actually learn the language of the person they are conversing with, and in the process will learn about those cultures as part of the conversation.

Try one of the translators and see how you like it. Go ahead and touch the future, or as they say in Klingon: “‘oH ‘e’ nID.”


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback. Feel free to leave a comment.  Read his previous columns here.