Microsoft have just unveiled the latest version of their Skype Translator, which will enable us to chat with people all over the world even if we don’t speak their language. This story ran in the Daily Mail here in the UK yesterday, under the rather depressing headline, ‘Don’t bother learning a foreign language! Skype will soon translate spoken foreign words in real time’.
I can definitely see that this innovation has its uses, particularly if you need to speak to a client or colleague in another country, and don’t have time to learn their language. And I’m in no way trying to undermine all the years of research that have gone into its development – it looks incredibly clever and impressive. But I think it’s unrealistic to believe that it’s going to make language learning redundant.
For one thing, I haven’t had a lot of faith in translation software since the time I needed to write an email to a colleague in Dutch. Since the only Dutch I know is ‘waar is de winkel?’ (‘where is the shop?’) and ‘de tweemansbob’ (‘two-man bobsleigh’), naturally I turned to Google Translate, copied and pasted the offered translation and sent the email, feeling pretty proud of myself. Until my colleague replied, telling me – in English – to never use Google Translate for Dutch again, because what I’d sent him made no sense at all. Hard to tell by email, of course, but I always picture him wiping away tears of laughter as he wrote his reply.
This was a few years ago, and I realise things have come on a bit since then. But these days if I have to use an online translation tool, I’ll always copy the text back in and check it makes sense in English before I hit send. And even then I’m never completely convinced I haven’t made some horrible mistake. As with any translator, if you don’t know the language at all, you have to put complete faith in the intermediary to correctly translate what you’ve said. With people, you can generally tell if they know what they’re talking about. With computers, it’s not so easy – especially given that this particular innovation also relies on speech recognition technology to even decide what needs translating in the first place.
I’m no expert but I’d assume most people with a need for the Skype Translator will be those needing it for business calls, and in that case you definitely need to know your translator is 100% reliable, or who knows what you could end up agreeing to? Presumably those who call friends or family through Skype will already know at least a little of the other person’s language – unless they’re calling their in-laws, in which case it’s possibly even more important to avoid embarrassing translation mistakes.
Secondly, even if I were completely confident that the translator was accurate, I’m not sure I’d want to use it. The brilliant thing about video call software like Skype is that it allows you to talk face-to-face with someone on the other side of the world, where before they would have been a disembodied voice on the phone or, even more impersonal, a written letter or email. Microsoft describes the translator as ‘human to human interaction’ but it’s not really – it’s ‘human to computer to human’, and what you hear is not your friend or colleague but a computer-generated voice giving you the translation of what they’re saying.
Personally, I’d rather do a bit of preparation, then fumble my way through a conversation, probably in a mix of languages and littered with mistakes, than have to sit and wait for a program to decide what it thinks I said and pass it on. Not only that, but making the effort to learn at least a little of the other person’s language shows respect for them and their culture. It’s well known that speakers of other languages would much rather you try, and get it wrong, than sit back and let a computer do all the work.
Finally, as we all know, there are no end of benefits to learning a language, far beyond making it through one Skype call. We’ve covered all these benefits elsewhere, so I won’t go into them all again. And in fairness, I don’t think Microsoft are trying to replace language learning. But I can’t agree with the Daily Mail‘s headline – just because a machine exists that can help us out in a tight spot, it doesn’t mean we should never make the effort to learn a language again. Language learning is as important as it’s ever been, if only to avoid an embarrassing situation like this, when we’re forced to leave the computer behind…
(Apologies in advance to any Italian speakers!)
Today we have a guest post by Stephen Thomas, on behalf of Pearson PTE, on why it’s important to expose children to other languages at a young age.
Why expose children to other languages?
Communication is fundamentally part of what makes us unique organisms on earth. The way that we have developed language to exchange concepts, ideas, narratives and so on with sounds that are culturally recognised to the degree of complexity we have, is distinctive and unmatched by any other organism.
Clearly then, learning a language reaps obvious benefits: we can learn and understand new things with ease, retain ideas throughout decades, make each other laugh and cry, discuss, debate and develop the most fundamental questions of philosophy – all through using just one language. So aside from the want or need to communicate with speakers of a different language, is there any benefit of being bilingual or raising children that are bilingual? Well, Pearson PTE spoke with Dr Catriona Morrison, senior lecturer in psychology at The University of Leeds who advised that there is evidence to support the notion that merely exposing children under the age of five to other languages has benefits, regardless of whether or not they become bilingual.
Between the age of 3 and 6 is a vital stage of childhood in terms of language learning and development. The malleable mind of a child
at this age is like a sponge and Dr Morrison advises that “after the age of five, it is highly unlikely to acquire the mother tongue of a language if it is not yet already acquired”. Although in later childhood or adult life we may learn a new language, we can be sure that we do not learn it with anything like the same ease that we would as a child. After this crucial point in child development there begins a change in the human brain that effectively shuts down the ability to ‘naturally’ learn language. Of course that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a language in adulthood, but if you have, I’m sure you will agree that it is much more difficult in contrast to a truly bilingual person (who learned two languages before this crucial stage) whereby the two languages are seamlessly managed within the brain as though they were one.
Beyond the communicative advantages, research suggests that bilingual children have better capacities for storytelling and interpretation. The processing of information seems to happen at a deeper level and they will think through and into the story more. So for example, statistically if we were to take a group of monolingual children and a group of bilingual children and tell them a story, when we ask them to recount the narrative and characters, the bilingual children will show evidence of deeper understanding and a higher level of information processing.
Furthermore, Dr Morrison suggested that bilingualism seems to act as a preventative mechanism against the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Although it will not create immunity and one may still fall to the condition, statistically if it is going to happen it will happen later in life, when compared to monolingual sufferers. In layman’s terms this could be because one is using more of the brain when accessing two or more languages and thus the brain is more active, and an active mind is a healthy mind.
How can we help children to discover languages?
So if you are a monolingual parent and you see the benefits of bilingualism in younger children, how should you go about helping your child? Realistically, a child of monolingual parents isn’t going to become bilingual, even with partial immersion in other languages through accessing foreign television radio or sending them to a nursery that caters for multiple languages. This is why Dr Morrison agrees that it is such a tragedy that the UK’s schooling system doesn’t introduce children to other languages as it is at this vital time of youth that we have the change to expand their minds in a way that isn’t possible at any other stage of life.
However, this doesn’t mean that the exposure is pointless or irrelevant: “I have a lot of faith in the idea that the more languages a child is exposed to, the better,” says Dr Morrison. Part of what makes language learning hard is that a new language draws on an entirely alien phonemic inventory to what we are used to hearing. When we try to listen to and learn these sounds, our brain simply isn’t accustomed to hearing them. So there is definitely a benefit for parents endeavouring to expose children to these sounds that they would otherwise be starved of and therefore selectively excluded from the brain; absolutely do allow your children to watch foreign TV shows or listen to internet radio form other countries and if possible encourage human interaction with your child and other language speakers. This will only help and bolster their learning and development.
If you’d like your children to start learning a language, why not try our Vocabulary Builder program? With its colourful characters and fun games, it’s a great start for young learners – and it’s available in over 100 languages.
Kana Tsumoto has just finished her internship with us, translating and recording our maths app into Japanese. In this post, she explains why she’s excited about her chosen career in interpreting.
The other night when I stayed at a youth hostel, I had an uncomfortable conversation with one of my roommates. I told her how I just finished a university course in Translation and Interpreting and how I am about to embark on my new career as a translator/interpreter. Then, in a not so roundabout way, she started to criticise my future profession, describing it as a boring task; merely repeating what has already been stated but in a different language! I shouldn’t have let her get on my nerves, but she did. I endured this for three days, and on the fourth she left. The initial joy felt at her absence soon descended into shame. It suddenly dawned on me that I had been a massive coward! I had failed to stand up for my profession, failed to defend it against a misinformed foe! Since then, I have been composing in my mind a grand speech on how wonderful translating and interpreting is. I would like to take this opportunity to share this speech, and dedicate it to my roommate in 303.
Interpreting is, in fact, very exciting and very demanding! You definitely do need an extremely good command of the language you are interpreting into/from, but surprisingly more important are other skills including for example research management skills, communication skills, a sense of conciseness and even drawing skills! I was flabbergasted myself by this when I first started the course. Let me go through some of these skills with you.
Communicating skills: Interpreting belongs to the service industry. So as a service, being able to communicate with your clients is a vital skill. Interpreters need flexible communication skills to survive in many different environments, such as court rooms and their tense atmosphere, to the bonhomie found at sales talks, or the acute technical details found at academic conferences.
Researching: Interpreters spend a significant amount of time on research. This takes place prior to the actual performance. An hour long session of interpreting can require days, even weeks, of research for it to be successful. Research allows the interpreter to familiarise themselves with the terminology and theories that are going to be employed during a speech or conference. Interpretation without research is in some cases impossible. If you don’t know what is being said then how can you translate?! A good interpreter immerses themselves within their particular field, becoming expert in their chosen subject.
Drawing skills: We interpreters are artists when it comes to taking notes. During consecutive interpreting, we usually make quick notes of the speech. But of course we don’t have much time for writing down stuff, nor can we spend much time looking at the notes when performing; we have to talk to the audience, not to our notes! So we take notes through the medium of drawing, or rather, in symbols! The symbols need to be simple enough to scribble down and meaningful enough to allow us to understand the logical flow and the details in just one glance.
Last but definitely not least…
Sense of conciseness: This, I find most difficult to improve (I’m going to have trouble explaining conciseness concisely, oh dear!… But here I go!). The best translation that suits the context and the intention of the speech may not be the translation you find in the dictionary. A good interpreter never burdens the audience with the task of trying to understand the interpretations; they are like a guide on a cruise liner, taking with them passengers for a seaside tour in the greatest of comfort. A bad interpreter however, forces their passengers to balance out the back of the boat on water skis, whilst showing them the same scenery. Exercising the skills of conciseness in the midst of interpreting is not an easy task, and it comes only through lots and lots of practice. It is an art form, and when it is done right it is beautiful!
As you can see, interpreting can be a very demanding job. It comes with everyday hard work. The process of striving for something and then accomplishing it is definitely exciting. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it, my roommate from the hostel! 😉