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!

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I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.