Those with kids know how difficult it is to get them to stop fiddling about on their phones and concentrate on their French homework. Young people do everything with their phones; arrange dates, view maps, play games, share images and even translate languages. It’s hard to convince teenagers of the importance of language learning when they can download an app that will translate anything for them. “Why should I learn German? I’m never going to Germany and even if I did, I could use my phone to translate!” This irritating argument is hard to counter when you consider the rapid pace of technological development. There are now apps that allow you to translate a sign or a menu simply by pointing your camera phone at it. There are also speech translation apps available for all operating systems, from iOS to Android and Windows Phone.
But should this complacency toward language learning worry us? Professor Nigel Vincent, president at The British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences, thinks so. In an interview with the Guardian he said that the deficit in multilingual graduates would negatively impact the British economy. Employers wanting to branch out into non-English speaking markets are finding they have to recruit abroad or train graduates in new languages. Britain’s monolingual culture may be limiting growth, because our missed opportunities are being seized by companies from more multilingual countries.
In his book ‘Is That a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything’, David Bellos writes that Google Translate is largely responsible for the recent trend of optimism regarding FAHQT (Fully Automatic High Quality Translation). He defends the virtues of FAHQT from the neo-Luddite pro-translation purists, but he also details its inherent limitations.
“Google Translate gives only an expression [of the ‘correct translation’] consisting of the most probable equivalent phrases as computed by its analysis of an astronomically large set of paired sentences trawled from the Web.” He explains.
Despite its limitations, Bellos points out that FAHQT has “pretty much put an end to easy money from the grant-giving foundations”. This probably doesn’t make translation seem like an attractive career path for young students. Andy Way is an expert on machine translation (MT), in his review of Bellos’ book he says that MT is not regarded as a viable substitute for professional human translation by those who understand the technology.
“MT now is undoubtedly at a level where it can be useful, and some translators have cottoned on to this fact and embrace MT as a useful tool. After all, that’s all it is, and all it ever will be; all influential MT protagonists that I know are very happy to state that ‘MT will never replace human translators’, or ‘the most important link in the translation chain remains the human’”
But are experts overlooking the obvious? Technology is certainly no substitute for a dedicated professional when it comes to translating literature, poetry or legal terminology. But language learning in schools is not intended to produce a generation of professional translators, just to provide students with useful life skills. There seems little doubt that if speech recognition software and translation software each continue to improve at the current pace, then few businesses will be concerned with hiring multilingual employees. How long will it take for the technology to get to that level though? Professor Vincent is sceptical about the pace of technological development.
“The monolingual speech recognition systems that I have used with some answering services seem quite basic to me so I imagine it’s a while before even those will be able to take over the role of human operators,” he says, “and the problems will just be multiplied once more than one language enters the equation.”
So translation apps aren’t a threat to professional translators right now, but that doesn’t mean they never will be. Ten years ago, it was science fiction to imagine speech translation apps being made widely available on every teenager’s mobile phone. Not only is the technology getting better at what it does, but it’s getting cheaper and more accessible too. Parents, schools and funding bodies may start to look on language learning unfavourably, but Professor Vincent doesn’t think we can afford to risk letting a generation of British kids fall behind our international competitors.
“It would be self-defeating to think they (MT’s) remove the problems we face if we become a nation of monolinguals in a world of polyglots.” He comments, adding “I don’t see any evidence that the Chinese or the Germans are standing down their language teachers, and I think it would be foolish for us to imagine we can do so.”
Other countries recognise the importance of language learning for the health of the economy in a globalised marketplace. But as English speakers, we have a tendency to assume we can get by with our native tongue, it is supposed to be the international language of commerce after all! Some argue that only call centres need employees with foreign language skills, an opinion vehemently contested by Professor Vincent.
“The evidence is that language skills are valuable at all levels, from the person answering the telephone to senior executives and consultants,” he counters, and even maintains that the higher up the chain one goes the less likely it is that technology will replace human agency.
The limitations of MT are not immediately solvable. It’s hard for machines to grasp the context of a sentence and thereby understand the intended meaning. Language is so fluid and flexible that metaphors and colloquialisms frequently render machine translations incoherent. But how much added value does bilingualism add to the average CV? Unless you’re becoming a professional interpreter, bilingualism is just an extra skill. Some people pick up a second language from a foreign parent and can therefore pursue a non-linguistic path in academia while retaining the second language as a bonus skill. But for many other students, language learning may look increasingly superfluous when they can just download the latest translation app.