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October 29, 2014

Chinese or English? Technology Could Render Language Learning Obsolete

 By Stan Abrams 
Despite the technological advances attributable to China and Russia, English is still the de facto language of science and business. As far back as 2008, Research Trends magazine noted that English is the first language of about 400 million people in 53 countries, and the second language of as many as 1.4 billion more. English, the magazine contended, is “well positioned to become the default language of science.”
via Language and the Interconnectedness of Things | WIRED.
This question/topic is always popular in certain crowds, including expats and nationalists. For hundreds of years, ever since global exploration began I suppose, the question has been valid. Just which language will dominate, and why?

Although I enjoy, now and again, reading nationalist screeds from one side or another about how English dominance is now set in stone internationally or how everyone will be speaking Chinese 50 years from now, I think we are moving towards a day in the not so distant future where the whole conversation will be meaningless for the average person.

Why? Technology (obviously).

We’ve had machine translation for quite a while now, which is even halfway decent in some languages. For example, I can move from English to Spanish quite well these days. Asian languages still have a long way to go, but a lot of progress has been made on that front as well. I’m rather impressed with the ability of my cloud-based Microsoft translator (I have the app for Windows 8) to move from English to Chinese. Then again, I don’t expect much, at least not yet.

I don’t think it will take much longer to have decent translation for most web pages. Some of the current problems have to do with poor translation platforms and the challenges of, for example, Asian languages, but we are also still struggling with things like page formatting, language embedded in images, etc. I have no doubt that language will cease to be a significant barrier for web browsing in the not-so-distant future, particularly when it comes to things like e-commerce. Accurate translations of social media posts? That’ll take a lot longer. Slang is always going to be a problem, with machine translation playing catch-up as language evolves.

Given how far we’ve come in the past few years, and noting where we are with wireless and mobile technology, I don’t think it’s crazy to envision a world where simple, real-time translation is commonplace. And that will include voice emulation, not just written translation. “Siri, please tell Mr. Zhang that his quoted price for a container of widgets is too high. My counter-offer is $X.”

It will be a long time before such a thing will be perfect, but perfection is not necessary, and many of us are already relying heavily on services like Google Translate, at least in countries where it isn’t blocked. There are already lots of apps for tourists, which I suppose is the most low-hanging fruit.

But wait, you say. You can’t substitute machine translation for the services of a human translator in a business setting. At the moment, no. But give it a little time, and you’ll be able to jump on a Skype call and enjoy real-time translation with voice emulation. Yes, there will definitely be a danger in folks not really communicating perfectly, but even now, you might be surprised at how many misunderstandings have more to do with cultural differences as opposed to language problems.

One thing I’ve found in my years as an expat and working with, and in, multi-cultural companies is that misunderstandings between people from different countries are very common even when language is not really an issue. For example, I’ve known quite a few overseas Chinese who on occasion struggle to get their point across to people here in the PRC, and it often has very little to do with their language skills.

I strongly believe that the vast majority of foreign language learning is done out of necessity. Yes, I know many of the folks who read this blog are Sinophiles and are passionate about learning Chinese. But really, you guys are a tiny minority. Learning a foreign language, particularly at a young age, may be good for neurological development, but if it’s not useful, most people will not bother. Technology will fill the void.

The issue of Chinese vs. English is still relevant, but it won’t be forever. Fast forward a few decades, and perhaps one’s native language won’t matter so much. Personally, I’m holding out for a Babel Fish.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

About The Author - Stan Abrams is a Beijing-based IP/IT lawyer and law professor with an M.A. from Johns Hopkins in International Relations, a J.D. from Boston College Law School, a B.A. from Pomona College, and writes at China Hearsay.  (EconMatters author archive here)

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