Language 2go

When I first approached this blogpost, I had a plan in mind, to illustrate the negative aspects technology brings to language learning and communication between cultures. However, during my first paragraphs I started to dive deeper into the topic of digital translators and I actually decided that I don’t agree with my critical point of view anymore. So, here I go, I restructured my thoughts and gave it a second try. Enjoy!

In nowadays globalized world, travelling and exploring new countries have become incredibly easy. Due to technical developments and the increasing competition on the market, travelling has become affordable for large parts of our population. However, besides the simplification in the transportation system that has been enabled by technics, there was another development that supports and – apparently – enhances our travelling experiences: digital translators.

Even though apps like google maps help us finding our way around in unknown environment, sometimes this technology reaches its limits. Imagine you want to find the best local restaurant or a beach that is not crowded by tourists or you find yourself on a local market of a small village and you would like to know more about the delicacies they sell. In some places of the world, they simply don’t speak any common language with you. In that case, you can use digital mediums to get in contact with them. Just download some apps on your smartphone beforehand (e.g. iTranslate, google translate) all of a sudden, you can just type or tell orally whatever you want to communicate and the app will translate your claims immediately for the interlocutor into the target language and vice versa. Newest technologies even allow us to swipe our phones above texts in foreign languages and it converts the text in the desired language in real time (see picture above).

Before I go on with elaborating on consequences and effects of this tool, I will quickly mention the incredible technique behind it. It’s worth to have a look at the impressive computational linguistics that forms the basis of the functionality of these apps. Computational linguistics builds the intersection of computer science and linguistics. It combines the knowledge of algorithms and data processing with the knowledge of languages, culture and communicational behavior. Translation software has to be fed with vocabulary, grammar and meta knowledge about sentence construction. Professionals from both fields, linguistics and IT, have to work hand in hand to create algorithms that are likely to produce grammatically correct sentences and translations. In case you want to learn more about it, click here.

However, what I actually planned to do is exploring the consequences and effects of this technique. To elaborate on that, I’ll start with an example: When my parents were on vacation without me, they were struggling a lot with the languages of the respective countries that they were travelling. Usually, I have been the one to help them communicating as they don’t have any knowledge about English. For them, portable translators are an incredibly helpful tool. However, speaking about younger generations, I wasn’t so sure about the positive effect. Due to globalization they should be more experienced with languages and I felt like it’s a rather negative tool that stops them from really engaging in languages and culture.

What do I mean by that?

So, let’s take my own experiences as a starting point. Last summer, I travelled small islands in Greece like Corfu. Translation apps have been very helpful there as local people in the small villages that we travelled do not have any touching points with English or other languages than Greek. On one hand, I’ve seen this technology as a nice opportunity to communicate with them as it gives you a more personal experience to be close to the inhabitants. You are also not stuck in the tourist areas and you can explore daily life in the country as soon as you don’t have to worry about the language barrier anymore. I felt like it reduces the distance between them and me.

However, that’s exactly when it becomes ambiguous. Having a digital device communicating for you kind of lowers and widens the distance at the same time. It’s not you anymore that’s talking to that other person, it is your smartphone. This mediation just feels unnatural to me. Furthermore, you don’t even have to read out the translation anymore, what diminishes your feeling for languages and reduces the amount of vocabulary learned. However, the technique enables researchers to study languages of small speech groups and facilitates research in general. As this short pro and con list shows, it is hard to say if digital translation does have a purely positive or negative effect on us.  

I think we use translation devices thoughtful and we should not forget about the beauty of languages. After diving into the topic of digital translation, I am definitely a supporter of it, however we should still be willing to learn about culture and languages in an analogue way to enjoy the whole experience of diversity around the world. And now, I would love to hear your own thoughts about it! Leave me a comment 🙂