Is tech making learning foreign languages obsolete?

I wouldn’t exactly say the French has been going well. A few decades after I left behind my high school language requirement (and the middling grades that accompanied it), I decided recently it was time to take another crack. So now, most days, I fumble through my Rocket lessons and feel like nothing has stuck. But while my travels over the last few years have made me as grateful for Google Translate as I am to be a native English speaker — they’ve also made me painfully, embarrassedly aware of how uniquely monolingual so many Americans are.

New technology in the form of apps and tools offering real time translation have simplified the world so much that we don’t really need to learn other languages any more. Perhaps we can compare it to what the calculator did for math equations. Why then am I doing it?

It’s typically considered easier to learn multiple languages in childhood, when the brain has considerably more plasticity. For us adults, that’s an easy excuse to throw in the towel before getting out of the gate. I mean, what’s the point if you’re never going to speak like a native? But encouraging research in the last few years suggests that our ability — even fluency — isn’t doomed if we’re trying to pick up a language later.

“It’s the distinction between learning something faster and learning something better,” Northern Illinois University’s Dr. Karen Lichtman, explained to the New York Times in 2020, “and that’s where people are confused.” And while 2018 data out of MIT did seem to confirm that children are more successful at language learning, a thoughtful Medium feature by writer Scott Chacon considered the social factors involved, noting that often, “Adults don’t have as much time to be exposed as children.” But even if in theory I could with great and focused effort someday become not entirely embarrassing in my French, there’s still the question of why bother.

The benefits aren’t simply that I might endure a modicum of less scorn from the locals when I try to get around France. There are a multitude of cognitive pluses — early research suggests language learning can help us multitask more efficiently and improve attention span and abstract thinking. The memory building might even help stave off dementia. The journal Behavioral Science reports that “Even late-life foreign language learning without lifelong bilingualism can train cognitive flexibility,” a balm to those of us with concerns about our aging brains.

But all kinds of skill acquisition endeavors can produce similar mental benefits, with some evidence for video games, supplements and much more. What language uniquely seems to also offer is a deeper sense of place in the world. Way back in 2007, an NEA paper on “The Benefits of Second Language Study” warned direly that “A pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry.” Speaking — and thinking — in another tongue can mitigate that. 

“When you make the effort to learn another person’s language, you demonstrate respect.”

Arturs Peha, the CSO of the translation service Skrivanek, acknowledges that “Technology has revolutionized communication, enabling us to bridge linguistic barriers more easily than ever before,” but he also makes the case for the human touch.

“Learning a language goes beyond mere communication,” he says. “It fosters empathy, cultural appreciation, and a sense of belonging. When you make the effort to learn another person’s language, you demonstrate respect for their culture and a willingness to engage on a deeper level. I speak four different languages.” Peha adds, “I can genuinely say that people talk and treat me very differently when I communicate with them in their native language compared to when I use a lingua franca or rely on an app.” 

Lukas Van Vyve, author and founder of Effortless Conversations book, is a believer in a hybrid approach. “While tech tools help bridge language gaps quickly,” he says, “they can sometimes miss the emotional depth of true human conversation. On Effortless Conversations, we create practice worksheets with the help of AI but have human proofreaders and teachers who always check the practice worksheets and we also tailor to the needs of our students. When we use tech wisely, it can enhance traditional language education.”

And Clifford Barkley, founder of the English learning service English Synopsis observes that “The advent of technologies such as Apple Vision Pro heralds a new era in communication, one where barriers seem increasingly surmountable without traditional language learning.” But he adds that “It’s imperative to understand that language acquisition extends beyond mere communication. While technology facilitates instantaneous translation, it it influences how we think by streamlining our interaction into binary comprehensions — either/or scenarios — potentially diminishing nuanced thinking facilitated by multilingualism.”

Seung Oh, CEO of Engram, an AI-powered grammar checker and proofreader for non-native English speakers, offers a different — and deeply thought provoking — perspective. “There absolutely are neurological and social benefits to language learning, but the whole experience is often romanticized and looked at from the view of a monolingual English speaker learning a second language for fun,” he says. “But there’s a difference between someone choosing to learn a new language to talk to locals as they travel and being pressured to learn English to participate in the global economy. The latter is the case for many of the one billion plus non-native English speakers around the world, and it’s not likely to become obsolete anytime soon.”

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Oh believes emerging tech can bridge the gap between language inequalities. “They can make it easier for non-native English speakers to access information and opportunities,” he continues. “They can help English-centric institutions and businesses better foster global diversity and inclusion. Academic conferences and global trade shows can proceed more like U.N. meetings, with live captions in the real world. Hopefully, these technologies put an end to judging people’s intelligence based on their second language skills and instead celebrate their ideas.” 

I was born on the linguistic third base. Last summer, I spent two weeks in a seminar in Switzerland with participants from Korea, Turkey, Italy, Mongolia, Azerbaijan and Slovenia, and everybody communicated in my language. I’m grateful that I have a device in my pocket that could enable me to offer even a few words back to them. And I’m shambling through my daily French lessons not because I have to, and not even because I hope they help my brain stay a little bit sharper.

I’m doing it to deepen my curiosity about French history, literature and politics. I’m doing it so I can one day talk confidently with my French friends, instead of my phone talking to them for me. To be humbled and vulnerable and human. To ask myself, as Arturs Peha does, “Which scenario seems more appealing to you: someone who genuinely attempts to speak to you in your native language, or someone who simply relies on an app to convey a message?”

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