Translating machines and (Language) Teaching

On January 5, 2013, the magazine The Economist published an article on simultaneous translation by computers and one of the first questions it asks readers is

How long, then, before automatic simultaneous translation becomes the norm, and all those tedious language lessons at school are declared redundant?

The very first thing that sprung to mind was how old the writer was. The second question was where exactly he went to school. The reason for the very first question is to find out whether he (I don’t know why I decided to call the writer a he, though) learned foreign languages through Grammar Translation or the Audio-lingual method and if all his language classes were a mixture of drills and meaningless translations. It’s been quite a while since I had my language lessons, and although I did find them boring in school where we did have to “learn” through GT, I can’t say the same about my language classes in language institutes.

It was still pretty much a structural perspective, granted. Yet, there was something else beyond the language. It was actually fun to go to a class where we were allowed to talk and to communicate. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I can say the reason for that was only clear to me after I became a teacher, and it may very well be the very reason I fell in love with teaching languages when it was supposed to be simply a way for me to try my hand at teaching before becoming a History teacher.

But the question remains dangling there. If we are ever able to devise a machine that will allow us to communicate with other people from all over the world, will the job of the language teacher be made redundant? As many professions before ours have already seen their end with the advent of technology, could this ever be the end of language teaching, or at least most of it? If we think about it, many who study English do so because they want to communicate. Well, if that truly is the case, then why would these people keep studying a foreign language when they would already be able to communicate?

Fortunately, learning a language gives you a lot more benefits than simply allowing you to communicate with others. It’s a sure fire way to keep your brain sharp, and according to some researchers, it might even lead to a different way of seeing the world. Some have already said that learning a new language is like acquiring a new soul, but that might be considered simply as too mysterious for some people out there who are just trying to communicate.

Don’t we also know that learning to play chess is also a fantastic way to exercise the brain and that it also allows you to see the world from a different perspective? Don’t we know that reading is also a much better way to exercise your imagination and creativity? I also remember reading somewhere that Sudoku may prevent Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, I don’t see that many people playing chess or learning how to play it, or people choosing books instead of TV, and apart from very few people I know, not that many people doing their Sudoku puzzles unless they’re waiting in a queue and don’t have a smartphone on them. I’m sure you understand that I’m talking about the average joe out there, and not some high-brow scholar.

Are people really that lazy and they will eventually end up choosing the easy way out? I most certainly know quite a few people who are quite happy with working very little and simply doing nothing, and I mean, nothing for the rest of the time. I’m talking about working as little as 6 hours a day or even less, and then simply doing nothing. And it’s not just for a month or so…

A series of announcements over the past few months from sources as varied as mighty Microsoft and string-and-sealing-wax private inventors suggest that workable, if not yet perfect, simultaneous-translation devices are now close at hand.

Just because we can't clearly see the final destination, we shouldn't fear getting there. | Photo on Flickr by sudeep1106
Even though we can’t clearly see the final destination, we shouldn’t fear getting there. | Photo on Flickr by sudeep1106

The question we may ask then, is just how close at hand they actually mean. But before spending too much grey matter on the topic, I guess we could go back to something all teachers who are a tiny bit into edtech already know – technology will not replace teachers, but teachers who can’t use technology will be replaced by those who can. This will only be proven right or wrong in a couple more years. What if more teachers were able to do as some Harvard and Stanford teachers have done when they taught more that thousands of students at once? Would there be enough students for so many teachers?

But this is all too gloomy, isn’t it? The challenges of computerised simultaneous translation are still far too great for it too happen as fast as the article might get us thinking in its very first lines. A bit further down, it states:

In the real world, people talk over one another, use slang or chat on noisy streets, all of which can foil even the best translation system.

This doesn’t mean we won’t be able to get there one day or another, but it might be as far-fetched in reality as flying cars were for those living in the 60s. Sometimes science-fiction eludes us and makes us wonder if things are as close as we’d like them to be.

Teaching a language is a lot more than simply teaching the words and grammar of the language. Learning a language, especially on this day and age in certain parts of the world, is, indeed, opening up to a world of possibilities. The language classroom might as well be the one place people are encouraged to speak their mind and have the chance to learn how to participate in a debate. Being in a language classroom where language is conversation-driven helps even the shyer students to work on their social skills and realise that they’re also entitled to an opinion. There’s just a lot more that a language classroom can provide to learns than the mere capacity to communicate. This is, as a matter of fact, why I do believe we need to make sure that learners are always pushed in our classes – it’s about a lot more than simply being able to get a message across.

The one thing that technology is able to do as of now is meet language learners with exercise drills and grammar explanations with automated correction and explanation. If all your teaching can be summed up into new grammar items and vocabulary, it’s very likely you’ll be replaced by a computer quite soon. Language teaching is education, and any challenge language teachers will face in the near future are no different from the challenges teachers of other subjects are likely to face.

If you’ve already bought the idea of life-long learning and you are able to adapt to changes and you embrace them instead of fearing them, then there’s no need to worry about what’s yet to come. Besides, it seems that the news trying to be more and more worried about coming up with stories that seem to come out of a crystal ball than to do what it’s supposed to do: inform readers and get them to reach their own conclusions.

But that might just be the proof we need to truly see that the way we’ve been teaching no longer suits this day and age. If those who get through school are more inclined to follow what’s linked to our emotions rather than to reason and make sense of things, question, analyse and critically think about whatever is presented to them, then we seriously need to rethink our practices. If all you’ve been doing in language teaching is teaching the language superficially, if the coursebook is your master and you do all it asks of you, if you’re compelled to distribute tons of handouts to your students and if you think that time well spent in class is the time when students do exercises individually and quietly, you’ve been doing your share to automatising teaching and then I do hope you’ll soon be replaced by a computer.

If, on the other hand, you’ve already understood that times they are a-changing and there’s the need to be constantly learning in order to teach, how about sharing this concept with the teacher next door? Oh, and the automated translation star-trek gadget… Just leave it be and worry about what truly matters in your profession. Teaching, my dear friends, has finally been evolving. It’s up to us to make it a swift and smooth transition into what it’s to become, or simply wait for all the bumps and moan in the corners about what it should be. Which road do you want to take?

10 thoughts on “Translating machines and (Language) Teaching

  1. Hi Henrick,

    I read the same article and, while I agree that translating machines are not going to happen in my lifetime, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t happen in my grandchildren’s lifetime. The sheer amount of money and resources that various comapnies are going to throw at the probelm are mind boggling. But then again, it might not happen at all because of the poitns you have raised.

    One thing that would be interesting with a language translator (in my world of Utopia), is that it would allow minority languages to thrive again as there wouldn’t be an economic imperative to learn the language of the majority.

    1. Hi Stephen,

      You do raise a valid point, and, if I’m not mistaken (as I can’t seem to find the article any longer), Google said they wanted to have a functional translating machine by 2015. They still have quite some time to perfect their Google Translator tool, voice recognition and such. Well, if any company can afford to invest in such thing it is exactly Google – or any of the other companies mentioned in the article, such as Microsoft. Will it be ready? I’m of the same opinion as you – maybe our grandchildren will see this.

      I’m not so sure that minority languages would thrive, though. Perhaps they would dwindle… but as these translation might occur first for the most spoken languages of the world, chances are those who speak not such well-known languages are still likely to have to learn English (or Spanish). I’ve tried, a while ago, the voice resource of Google Translate. I found it much more accurate when it was translating from English than when it was translating into English. If this is related to the databank they have available, it’s only a matter of increasing the data on other languages. Or maybe I’m oversimplifying it. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!!

  2. Hi Rick,

    I haven’t read the article in The Economist, but I believe I got the gist of it from the the parts you included in your own article. I sometimes find it revolting how some people think they possess the gift of oversimplying things. I also work as a translator and, of course, I have had people send me abstracts or entire articles they ‘translated’ on Google Translator for me to ‘improve them a bit’. I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about.

    As to the person who wrote the article in the magazine, I don’t think ‘he’ realizes that the main role a teacher has, as far as see it, is that of a genuine educator – a human being working with a group of other human beings. That’s how I see myself, anyway, whenever I’m in the classroom teaching. I do realize though that as teachers working for any given language institute, we have a set of obligations from which we can’t escape as often as we would like. I’m talking about following a timetable, giving tests, assigning homework and the like. I aslo understand that some institutes are less strict about these matters and don’t regard the course book as the main guide (yes, guide, not master). Whether you are at one end or the other (or perhaps in the middle), that’s not what’s crucial, I guess.

    What does matter to a true teacher is that the subject they are teaching is a means through which a whole lot more than simpling teaching grammar and vocabulary is made possible. What I mean by this, which you put so well in your article, is that true educators see their students as individuals with specific needs, fears, strenghts and limitations – just like us.

    Perhaps it won’t be long before a super powerful translating machine is able to convert different types of texts and voices from one language to several others creating, as some people think, real communication. If you think about it, microchips simply answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (thousands of times per second) to the questions they are asked while processing information. If that’s where the writer of the article is coming from, who knows?

    What he doesn’t know, though, is that the job of a true educator is way beyond saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and no machine can take that away from them. Take their machines away, and they will still be educators. Without a teacher, I don’t think learners will know what to do with the communication capability they have been taught.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Hi Henrick,

    I just came across your blog and agree with a lot that you have to say! I was particularly drawn to this post because it’s something I deal with every day while teaching in Japan. While I think translation programs are useful, they are really only effective if you pay attention to what is being translated. It amazes me how many students hand in work to me that makes no sense, and when I show it to them, they have no idea what it means either! I have a feeling that if translation machines/programs become a reality in the future, that is how they’ll be used by many — just rely on it to make what they think is a good translation, without looking at it and making sure it makes sense to them! Another problem with translation is that it really doesn’t get cultural values/slang. I have had a number of students tell me that they think and speak differently in English, because it allows them to say things that they cannot say in their own language. Such things would be lost in translation I believe. 😉

    1. Hi there,

      Well, that’s something that only time will tell, right?! I’ve seen some major advances in translating software lately, but you actually mention something which is still hard to be accomplished: how can a computer programme actually understand all the subtleties of communication that takes place in any kind of interaction? These things still get lost in translation, but I do believe we’re close to the time in which basic, straightforward speech will be translated by a machine.

      The other problem computer companies may face is working on getting the software to understand that there are people speaking at the same time in the room and not necessarily about the same topic. This is going to be yet another challenge.

      Now, finally, to the crux of the matter, students who are unable to understand what they have tried to convey simply because they relied on a translation tool. This is one of the most serious problems the easy access to these tools has brought about. I’m still struggling to find the best way to deal with this, but so far my best answer is still educating them and having a conversation about how they learn a language. And, yes, as you well pointed out, paying attention to what is being translated is key if they want to have the translation as an ally!

      Thanks for the comment and the thoughts it’s generated!


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