Communication has always been one of the essential acts of human interaction. As other crucial parts of our existence, it evolved, languages changed, media of communication and writing changed, perhaps, even our body language is not the same it was a thousand years ago. Nowadays, if we want to understand a text or a speech in a language that we do not know we can go on Google Translate and get our answer. I have found myself, especially at the beginning of my University career, searching for pretty much anything; what are the ingredients of that sandwich? What does that big red sign say? Or any letter that comes from the Dutch government. It is so easy to overcome language barriers these days compared to how it was even a few decades ago.
And yet, learning new languages has never been so important.
Learning a language does not only make us able to understand it and communicate with it. Along the process, we get closer to the culture of its speakers, we better understand how they think, what their customs are. To me, nothing can be British than the saying “not my cup of tea”. In my country of origin, Italy, most people drink tea only when there is no coffee in the house (chances are very low though) and its meaning would change significantly. When I think of “not my cup of tea” I think of a group of British people drinking tea while discussing if they want to eat shepherd’s pie or fish and chips and dreaming of how many pints they’ll drink at the pub later that day.
Sayings don’t necessarily have to depict the culture, sometimes, without knowing the language and the culture you just wouldn’t understand them. For example, when someone asks you to borrow something in Italy, some people (the kind that is not very funny at parties), could tell you that the name of the object they gave you is Pietro. Why is that? Because the name Pietro rhymes with the sentence ‘torna indietro’ which means to come back, in this case to the person from which you borrowed it from. Think about it, if u weren’t familiar with British culture (and stereotypes) would you understand the meaning of “not my cup of tea”? Probably not, the love for tea that the British have dates back centuries when it was first imported from China and become ‘British’ when commercial cultivation on behalf of the East India Company started in 1840.
In my opinion, Google Translate will never be able to understand or let understand these sayings. That is because they originate from the culture of a language, not the language itself. I will go as far as saying that to understand and speak a language fully; there is a need to talk with native speakers; some expressions will never be found in Duolingo or Babbel or schoolbooks. Nothing can, at least, in this case, replace human contact and communication, not even the best of the best of Artificial Intelligence.