Machine translation tools: is it still worth it to learn a foreign language?

Let’s be honest: who among us has never turned to an automatic translation tool to convert a sentence from one language to another?

It’s no secret that we rely on machine translation tools in our daily lives. Think about social media platforms like Instagram, which automatically translates our friends’ captions for posts or stories, or Youtube, where subtitles are generated to help us understand the content of a video. We also use these tools for school assignments in a foreign language to save time, or at work, relying on computers to translate official documents. In short, automatic translation has become an integral part of our everyday life. And it’s not surprising, considering it has revolutionised the translation industry, making languages and cultures from all around the world accessible to everyone in just a few seconds. It has even led us to believe that we no longer need to learn a foreign language to communicate, understand, and write it effectively. But is this truly the reality?

Even today’s most sophisticated software does not approach the fluency of a native speaker or possess the skill of a professional translator.

John Hutchins, University of East Anglia

Lost in translation

Undoubtedly, computer-based translation systems have simplified language interactions, giving us access to multilingual information sources, and speeding up the translation and interpretation process. However, I bet that at least once in your life, you’ve come across sentence that was auto-translated in a bizarre or even nonsensical way. This tells us that automatic tools can’t replace humans’ abilities.

The challenge of idioms

Idioms are expressions with a figurative, non-literal meanings that are not deducible by looking at the individual words.

Here’s an example:
It’s raining cats and dogs.
Of course, this idiom doesn’t actually mean that cats and dogs are falling from the sky. It means that it’s raining very heavily.

Translating idioms poses problems for machine-based tools, as they tend to translate phrases word-by-word incorrectly.

Imagine chatting with your new online Italian friend that asks about the weather, and you answer that canids and felines are falling from the sky… embarrassing, isn’t it?

Synonyms: which one should I pick?

Languages often have rich vocabularies, meaning that they are loaded with synonyms. This can be a real challenge for automatic translators, which must pick the right equivalent from among numerous words.  

Take, for instance, the adjectives sick and ill. When translated into Italian, they both end up as are both translated into malato (for males) or malata (for females). But guess what? Human translators can spot the difference in meaning and select the appropriate translation.

Sorry machine translation tools but dealing with synonyms isn’t your forte.

Don’t joke with me

If you think translating a joke or conveying ironic messages in another language is an easy task, think again. Humour, for instance, is deeply rooted in culture and relies on linguistic tools, such as wordplays, puns, and cultural references to get a smile out of the readers.

In translations, sometimes it gets so challenging to preserve the twist of humour in a different language that human translators might just throw in the towel and try to explain why it’s funny. But once you have to explain a joke, the funny part is pretty much over.

And if reproducing the humorous effect is tough for humans, let alone a computer. Automatic tools often provide a literal translation of ironic phrases, completely missing the mark. Instead of a laughter, they leave readers scratching their heads in front of nonsensical phrases.

The final verdict

But let’s get down to serious business: is it still worth learning a foreign language?

Well, even though technology has been constantly improving, by reading the examples above you can easily understand that automatic translation is far from being accurate and shouldn’t always being trusted. However, this doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be used when translating a text. Quite the opposite: it can be a helping hand to communicate effectively in another language, given its constant refinement and speed. Personally, I believe it’s important to realise that all these tools are a double-edged sword and have their limits. While they help us save time, they can mistranslate phrases.