Will Technology Spell the End of Language-Learning?

Written by Dyami Millarson

Imagine a near future where some sort of AI-augmented Google Translate can do all the language-learning and translating for us. Google Translate and similar technologies are still in their infancy, but one can easily imagine a near future where such technologies may beat us in every possible way. What does this mean for language-learning, translation work and language-teaching in schools?

In a near future where modern technology is capable of beating us at language-learning in every possible way, it may come as a surprise that a large amount of dedicated individuals, such as myself, will continue learning languages. I see learning languages as a way to connect with people, technology has no human heart, soul and mind. Technology may mimick human emotions, but humans have been endowed with the faculty of mood since time immemorial. To my mind, language-learning is a social activity and it will stay that way regardless of technological advances. That is why one would keep learning languages in a world where technology can beat humans.

We as human beings will continue valuing our own achievements no matter what technology can do for us. Playing chess is a good analogy to language-learning. People have continued playing chess even long since computers have become so good at chess that no human being can ever truly beat a computer. Humans value the fun, challenge and competition of chess. They consider chess as healthy for their brains.

I see language-learning in a similar light: I do it for self-improvement, because I believe that I must first improve myself before I can improve my immediate environment and eventually the larger world. I take language-learning seriously, and I use my skills for charitable ends such as documenting and saving languages. Moreover, I believe our language-saving efforts will be valuable in a future where AI can do all language-learning for us, because if no one documented those critically endangered languages for anyone or any AI to learn it, then how is anyone or any AI going to learn those languages? No human is capable of learning an undocumented language ex nihilo, nor can any AI be expected to be capable of that, unless it can somehow transcend current laws of physics, making time travel possible for AI, which is a very unlikely event in the near future.

Imagine a future where trans-humans have augmented brains and can learn much faster than any biological human can. Even if I must be one of the last biological humans on earth, I will continue learning languages because I want to test the limits of the human brain. I like the challenge. There is no achievement when your brain is augmented by a powerful computer. I like the feeling of human achievement. There is something valuable about overcoming limitations without resorting to external augmentation; summoning your power from within to achieve something is true achievement, and that is also why sportsmen and sportswomen who use some kind of drug to enhance their physical ability and endurance are disqualified from sports competitions if discovered.

I have no idea whatever the fate of language education in schools may be. Will it be abolished or will it stay? If it is not going to be abolished, significant improvements in the methods employed will have to be made and more technology will have to be adopted to aid the learning process. The old model of a teacher reading from a book is really old-fashioned, no doubt about it. If people are still going to learn languages in schools, then it needs to have some kind of added value; being coerced to listen to a teacher who reads from a book is not exactly added value. Anyone can turn on YouTube these days and do a simple Google search to find the information they seek. The internet knows more than a teacher, but a teacher can help a student decide what data is irrelevant, which is an important skill required for learning.

Language-learning in schools will have to become something voluntary, not something that is demanded by a school programme. This may significantly reduce the amount of people that is learning languages, but that is good, because then all the limited resources of a teacher or school can be invested in those who really want to learn. Forcing people to learn is no viable strategy and it greatly wastes valuable resources that could have been invested in a highly dedicated minority. A reduction in coerced language learners is good, and mandatory language programmes should be abolished; people can decide out of their own free will what they think is relevant for humanity/society, and cultivating such innovativeness is good. Spending resources on having students coerced into learning one language or another is extremely wasteful and flies in the face of any principle of efficiency.

Students always came to me out of their own free will to learn languages. They told me what they wanted, I held them accountable for their goals, I helped them make planning, I judged their progress in improving their techniques, I talked with them to assess personal problems and I gave lots of motivational speeches to inspire them to keep pursuing their dreams. These people just wanted to achieve something and they saw me as a teacher because I am efficient and I know how to achieve things. As long as humans value human achievements, there will be a need for teachers who can inspire students. People seek teachers to be inspired, just like people read books or articles to be inspired. I think that inspirational language-teaching on an intimate personal level has a bright future, for it is adapted to timeless human psychological needs and can be easily adapted to suit distinctly personal tastes. All in all, a return to the primordial language-learning in the context of intimate tribal human contact might be the future; humans usually enjoy getting personal attention and so language-teaching may have to evolve into a highly personalised art that is focused on a select few rather than large anonymous groups of people. The “tribal” feeling of a small community might have to be fostered for language-teaching to survive.

Furthermore, I think that the learning of identity languages is going to be a growing market in the language-learning economy. Languages associated with a particular identity are going to be taken up more. We are likely going to see a paradoxical trend this century; on the one hand we have the rapid extinction of small languages, on the other hand we have the renewed interest in small languages. The globalised environment fosters new interest in local identity. International tourists value local identity and increased global contacts make people increasingly question what makes them unique; globalisation has set in motion a global search for local identity. Locals and foreigners are seeking this local identity. There is now a sudden (economic) demand for localisation, whereas local identity used to be looked down upon before the trends of globalisation truly started kicking in. Worldwide localisation is the human response to globalisation. This trend, if it continues, will ultimately give a huge boost to small languages in the 21st century.

Local identity answers to the human need to be tribal; humans like distinguishing themselves, and this desire is understandable, because each and every human being is struggling to be recognised by the larger human group, and so they need to find the right balance between conforming and rebelling, which causes a huge inner struggle in the individual. Modern human beings are having a hard time finding out who they are, and so they start looking for their roots, they start soul-searching and they naturally begin studying their local language and culture. This demand needs to be met with a supply; and therefore lots of materials should be available online to meet the huge demand. In fact, many locals do not realise the increasing demand and continue thinking with the old mind-set that local language and culture have no relevance somehow. There is increasing foreign as well as local interest in the local language and culture, and it is no easy task satisfying this demand. The objective of this blog is to make a modest start to satisfy the nascent local and international demand for studying local languages, local cultures and local religions. We learn through experimentation and self-criticism and we hope to make significant historical contributions to meeting the human demand for adopting local heritage.

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