Could AI make language learning obsolete? 

The Babel fish of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy seemed like a distant science fiction reality until Google launched their Pixel Buds with real-time translation in 2017; the latest iteration now being Pixel Buds 2

Perhaps we can expect an iPhone-like symphonic progression in models here?  

Many companies are throwing their hat into the translation technology ring. Web translation software is being surpassed by portable, state-of-the-art technology in the form of earpieces, hand-held devices and apps, all of which are enabling users to quickly navigate our multilingual world on-the-go. Most recently, American Airlines announced it is testing interpreter mode for Google Assistant to help communication between their employees and travellers who speak a different language. 

In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) has drastically enhanced the accuracy and quality of foreign language translations – allowing machines to help break down language barriers for customer service teams and tourists alike. However, the worry is that people will increasingly lean on emerging technology for translation. Will airline employees and passengers of the future rely solely on translation devices when checking in or ordering a drink from the catering trolley? Is AI the enemy of language learning? 

Here are several reasons why language learning won’t die out in the age of technology.

1. Language skills will remain essential to everyday life  

Globally, English language skills are key to accessing higher education, the business world, and international travel. It goes without saying that having to rely on translation devices to communicate in English puts you at a disadvantage, compared to others who can speak without any tech assistance. 

In non-English-speaking countries, learning a language is not just a hobby. Learning English is the route to success. That’s why there are more than one billion people in the world learning a language who collectively spend more than £40 billion every year to improve their language skills. As a result, the English language represents more than 50 percent of the global language learning market.   

The UK, however, is seriously lagging behind when it comes to this, with less than a third of young Britons able to read or write in more than one language, compared to a large majority of youngsters in France and Germany. Ultimately, the UK needs to do much more when it comes to giving both teachers and students access to the tools and technology that enable language learning to be more enjoyable and effective.

There’s no better time than now to do something about this. In our current Brexit climate, it’s been stressed by various institutional bodies that being multi-lingual will be an extremely valuable asset. The practical benefits are key here as well: language skills open a lot of doors for employment. According to the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Report 2018, “the need for languages has been heightened by the UK’s departure from the European Union”. As British industry seeks to remain connected with business overseas, speaking a foreign language is a great skill to have in your arsenal, and one which cannot be replaced simply by a translation device.

2. Language learning is good for us  

As well as helping to connect us with the wider world and other cultures, language learning is also hugely beneficial to us as individuals.   

Learning, in general, helps improve our mental wellbeing and is a great way to help boost confidence and self-esteem. If you decide to learn a language then you’re choosing an excellent brain workout that scientists believe can help prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It also makes us happier – learning new words activates the ‘ventral striatum’, the same brain circuitry that is activated when we satisfy a chocolate craving.   

For children, research indicates that learning another language at a young age can help improve academic performance and enhances cognitive skills. In a recent study, researchers from Oxford University concluded that bilingual children outperform their monolingual classmates at the ages of five, seven and eleven, as well as in their GCSE exams.  

3. Communicating through tech alone is ineffective

One of the important dimensions of language learning is being exposed to native cultural nuances. Relying solely on software for answers is not enough to fully appreciate a language. For instance, when someone chucks a phrase through Google Translate, the results can often be awkward and wooden to say the least.  

Assimilating those colloquial and idiomatic phrases can only be done through visiting the country in question or conversing with a native speaker. Sometimes you need to speak to another person in order to learn that language – the cadences and intonation are things you can only pick up by hearing another person’s voice.  

4. Tech is an enabler for better language learning

Advancements in AI shouldn’t stop us from learning languages. Rather, they have the power to do the opposite, adding a vibrancy to language learning that enables us to learn more quickly and easily than ever before.

Take, for example, digital, AI-powered classrooms. These can help instruct and remind students the key areas to focus on when it comes to language learning. As technology becomes more refined, it can  capitalise  o n memory retention techniques. For instance, the forgetting curve helps chart when a student may be in danger of forgetting a certain word or phrase. If technology serves up a reminder about this certain phrase, then it will push it back to the top of the memory bank and so save it from becoming muddled. Busuu’s own AI-powered feature, Grammar Review, actively reminds learners of topics they would usually forget, meaning the chances of forgetting pre-learned content are lowered. 

Language skills remain essential to everyday life, whether it’s communicating with friends, family, passersby, or in a business context. That’s why, while we should certainly embrace the benefits AI is bringing to translation technology, we must be careful not to let this discourage us from learning languages altogether. This means striking a balance between the two, using technology to facilitate language learning – from targeting individual pain points, to making the experience far more interactive and enjoyable compared to the traditional dusty school textbook.

About the author

Bernhard  Niesner  is the CEO & Co-Founder of Busuu, one of the world’s leading mobile apps for language learning with over 90 million users. In 2018, he was named an EY UK Entrepreneur of the Year. Bernhard is originally from Austria, speaks four languages and lives in London.  

Featured image: ©Wachiwit

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