The Universal Translator: Good or Bad?

I’ve been seeing articles and videos regarding this tiny little device that claims to be a “universal translator”. For those of you who don’t know, though the term itself is pretty self-explanatory, this is a device that supposedly translates any language being spoken into the native language of the user. It’s a frequently seen apparatus in science fiction, most notably in shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who.

Now, as an avid language learner, you might think I’d laud this device and say it’s wonderful. However, the truth is, that I have some quite mixed feelings. Indeed, it does ease communication between people through technology. But it also presents a new stage in what I call “cultural laziness”. I’m not a fan of how many societies, particularly Western ones, have a disdain for learning languages in general, only because they can get away with not speaking other languages. Other people are not so lucky, where their native environments are multilingual by nature.

Maybe I shouldn’t even call it “being lucky”, because I think it’s a great thing to be born into a multilingual environment. The point is that I think that this translation device isn’t really a good thing on a cultural communication standpoint, since it doesn’t encourage people to truly learn a language and appreciate it. Translation is a filter, and not everything passes cleanly through it. Nuance and other subtleties of meaning are not easily translated, even by human translators, so I don’t expect the device to do the job any better, at least not for a while.

As the article itself points out, the device requires all participants in a conversation to be wearing the device for it to be effective, which can be a bit of a problem. Not to mention that I’m not sure it will even cover most languages. Translation is something that I think is more necessary for communities where access to other language materials are not easily secured, or where the language is not sufficiently standardized to be widely known. This means that interpreters and translators are of better use to minority communities rather than majorities.

I could go on and on about the ways I don’t necessarily like the device. However, I do think it has its merits in making communication easier. I am concerned about its impact on the art and culture of language learning. We should not abandon language learning entirely in favor of a device that will do the work for us. I understand that people are not naturally inclined toward working like that, but it is important that we maintain some amount of sociocultural work ethic rather than always depend on technology to do it for us.

Whether the device is good or bad has yet to be proven, and only time will tell.

I hope you enjoyed reading this brief article. I welcome anyone’s thoughts on the topic. I haven’t been writing for a while because I’ve become very busy at school. I will try to write more in the future!

Fluency Revisited: 3 Things That It Is and That It’s Not

A few months back, I did a couple of posts regarding the objective of foreign language study: achieving fluency. I did several posts on the definition of fluency, and the levels thereof. Looking back on those posts and considering my views now, I think I need to revise my definition fluency. I’m going to talk about some of the things what it is and what it’s not. This is by no means an exhaustive list. So, here we go!

What fluency is:

1. Literacy

This is one thing that hasn’t really changed for me. I don’t think you can be called fluent in a language unless you can express yourself in all three modes of communication: reading, writing, and speaking. While most people think of speaking when it comes to fluency, I think that in order to master a language, which is fluency, you need to be literate. In fact, the first order of business when you’re learning a language with a different script should be learning it. The best way to acquire more vocabulary is reading, and if you don’t have many opportunities to speak, you should be familiar with the writing in the target language, especially when you’re talking with someone in a chat window on some social network.

2. Interpretation

Interpretation is the exchange of the spoken language through speaking and listening. You need to be able to process and react to the spoken language, using the target language in both instances. It’s not really enough to get the gist, because you may miss certain nuances, such as sarcasm, irony, or jokes. You can’t claim to know a language when you understand everything being said, but cannot respond.

3. Cultural conventions

A big mistake that I see with a lot of people in language classes is literally translating whatever they’re trying to say from English. It is important to understand that people who speak one language do not think in the exact same way as the people who speak another language. This is evidenced by the fact there are words that don’t necessarily translate to or from other languages. You need to learn how people use idioms, how certain words fit into certain contexts.

Another thing about this is that you cannot automatically use another language the way you would your own. Just because you talk casually with just about everyone doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate in another language. That’s not the culture. For example, in most Romance languages, it is not up to you to decide when you can use the “tu” form to address someone who you’ve become good friends after a long time. It is considered polite to either ask (though that is a bit more forward), or wait for that person to give you express permission. And don’t think people won’t notice. They will.

What fluency is not:

1. Being a scholar/academic

Let’s be honest: the majority of the speakers of any language are not professors. And by no means can learners be expected to acquire such advanced skill. Being an intellectual requires the study of advanced texts and learning of a much higher degree, which you can only consider when you actually know the language to begin with.

2. Being a native

Don’t let any teacher or anyone else tell you that fluency precludes anybody who didn’t grow up speaking the language. This is by no means true, because you can learn to acquire that facility by immersing yourself in the environment where the language is spoken (after some time studying the language of course). That’s how children learn: they’re immersed in the language, and know how to use it only after much trial and error.

3. Taking only classes

You need to get out into the world, where people use the language for their everyday lives. Get yourself out of your bubble, your little comfort zone, where all you ever do is take tests and answer questions. Sure, you can practice conversations in class; but even then, everything is scripted. Knowing the language in theory isn’t everything.

So, there’s something else for you to think about. Remember, these are just my opinions, not definitive facts. Take them as you will. Please share this on Facebook, Google Plus, and Tumblr! Leave any comments if you have something to say about this topic.