|Image: Babelfish CC BY Tico on Flickr|
I had a call this afternoon from our press office asking me to record a response for Sky News to this item which appeared in the Mail about a headset which can translate your interactions automatically in real time. Would this, she asked, be the end of the need to learn languages? After a quick chat with their contact all was put in place to go live on Sky tonight at 6.45pm. When I finished teaching at 5pm, I returned to my office to polish my responses and prepare myself. I have just taken a call telling me the item has now been pulled but here are my responses anyway!
Firstly it is true that we are benefiting from many rapid technological advances and the field of languages is indeed being transformed by communication technologies. We see that it is easier that ever before to connect people in real time through virtual exchange but it is a complex area. We need to apply some digital wisdom here.
The inventor of this gadget comes from a country which admits readily it doesn't do enough language learning and the idea came when he met a French girl. Get it? Of course he wanted their minds (and maybe their bodies?) to meet and urgently needed a shortcut to fluency. Relationships are mediated by language, but as we all well know relationships, like language, are complex.
My first thoughts were of how, given much of our communication is through gesture and body language, the cognitive demands of listening to an earpiece whilst trying to maintain eye contact, not pull strange faces when the machine translates (actually that is incorrect - translation is the word used for written language) - interprets what she says, may disrupt the flow of relationship building that happens in face to face settings where judgements are made in split seconds. We may see a "sat nav" effect where people ignore their instincts when focusing on the instructions, ending up literally in no-mans land.
Then we have the complexity of language itself. Accents, speed and clarity of voice input usually require device training and could completely fox the system. Good interpreters understand the speaker's context, can explain cultural references in jokes for example and make appropriate adjustment for idiomatic language use. I wonder what Andrew (the inventor) would make of his new friend telling him "it is raining ropes" (Il pleut des cordes - It's tipping it down!) Language is constantly changing and growing with human progress, check out what's new in the Cambridge dictionary blog. The French can now "liker" a Facebook friend!
So if you are thinking of getting yourself one of these devices, please proceed with caution. You may easily fall foul of any or all of these pitfalls. Isn't it more fun anyway to embrace what our brains are hard wired to do: figure each other out over time, maybe over coffee and some linguistic exploration on your phones? Andrew, you could have much more fun if you got out more and enjoyed the company of those whose first language is not US English. The negotiation of meaning - be it through food, wine, film, dance or any of the many human ways we get to know each other brings greater rewards and opens our minds to many ways of looking at the world.