The Future of Language Learning
For three years now I have been following the Language Learning community online, occasionally even participating. During that time I have thought in-depth about the future of language learning. Where is it going? How will people learn languages? Why will they learn them? How can we use technology to learn more efficiently? How will the language learning industry change? What will companies like Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur look like? Where are there still business opportunities?
And I arrived at an answer.
My conclusion surprised even me.
Language learning will die out. There will be no more language study for the vast majority of the world. What will remain is a small collection of intellectuals who do it only for the self-satisfaction of learning a language. The current-day equivalent is people who study Klingon, Latin or Dalmation. But most of the world will never learn a second language.
I know this may sound radical. At first glance some people may even find this stupid.
But here’s why it’s true: most people will not need to learn a language. For most people, learning a language is a means to function and communicate with other people. In the near future, only hobby language learners will continue to learn the majority of languages.
Given that worldwide interaction has increased exponentially since the internet appeared, this probably sounds like a strange conclusion. The need for better communication, through language, has become even more important. Worldwide commerce is growing aggressively. International travel is much easier and cost-effective than any time in history.
Boosted by that demand, language learning resources have popped up everywhere. Language learners are now in closer contact than ever before through Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and every other internet tool imaginable. It is easier to learn a language than ever before. There are more materials than ever, and with the internet, more opportunities to practice. Language learning is everywhere. And it’s cheap or free.
With this proliferation of language learning, you may see this as the heyday of language learning.
To me, we are witnessing the twilight.
Technology Replaces the Need to Learn Languages
Technology will eliminate the need for most people to learn a language. As technology in machine translation improves, language learning will continue to decrease, to the point where it will almost die out.
In fact, the technology needed to kill off language learning is already here. It is currently, quirky, awkward and not complete. However, the technology exists. The next step is to improve the technology until it is perfected.
Before we discuss how technology will advance in the coming years, I suggest you review some of the currently existing technologies that facilitate communication across languages. Many of you will be surprised that these technologies exist and are already functioning at their current levels.
• Microsoft’s translation tool that maintains the speaker’s voice and accent (here’s the video starting at minute 6). Imagine this software installed on your phone. You speak English and the person on the other end of the conversation hears Mandarin. NOTE: This video is a year old, so the technology is already better.
• Google’s Breaking down the language barrier.
• Duolingo software used for both learning a language AND crowd-sourced translations.
• Speech translators on your phone: Jibbigo and Say Hi Translate.
• Word Lens Translation App translates text simply by pointing your Iphone. Here’s a demo video.
• Docomo augmented reality glasses that translate writing in real time.
I know, I know…they don’t work well. They make mistakes. Machine translation sucks. Google Translate is rife with errors. Language is too complex for a machine to process it as well as a human.
I have heard all of those comments. They are reasonable.
But raise your hand if you think the technology will not improve. Anyone? I didn’t think I’d see too many hands. Still one of the few skeptics not convinced? Think back to Google Translate’s accuracy 5 years ago. It was miserable, barely readable. Now, if you have the opportunity to use it, you will see that many website texts are easily understandable. And it will only continue to improve.
The Future of Simultaneous Language Translation Technology (Machine Translation)
We are in a transition period when human intervention is needed to improve machine translation and interpretation. The need for human intervention will continue for years. However, as the machine translation technology improves, the amount of human intervention needed will decrease until it is almost non-existent.
The question becomes how much will the machine translation technologies improve and how fast. Here is where Ray Kurzweil, an inventor, author, businessman and futurist clearly explains what we can expect from technology advancements in simultaneous language translation.
Kurzweil explains that most people ignore or severely underestimate how quickly technology advances, when thinking of the future. As mentioned by Kurzweil in his Singularity discussion, technological advances develop exponentially. Most people, when thinking of the future, assume that technology will only advance on a linear path. Here is a simple graph to illustrate his point:
Kurzweil’s graph shows that most people assume that technology improves the same amount each year (the red line), so in 10 years (the horizontal or x-axis) technology will have improved slightly, maybe a 50% improvement. However, in reality technology grows exponentially (the yellow line) so in 10 years it will have improved 1600%. These are approximations but illustrate the power of exponential growth when compared to linear growth.
Now apply this exponential graph to improvements in the existing technologies you saw above. In five to ten years time the current technologies will be functioning at much higher levels. Possibly higher than we can imagine.
A Universal Translator
Am I claiming that a universal translator is just around the corner? Not at all. By definition a universal translator means that it is universal, that it could translate all the world’s languages. While this is theoretically possible, with thousands of languages in existence, it will require decades to document all these languages so a universal translator may recognize them.
However, it is not necessary for a universal language translator to exist for language learning to wither away. Keep in mind that the 20 most popular languages are spoken by 53% of the world. This means we only need to have machines capable of translating and interpreting among these 20 languages to have 3 billion people communicating WITHOUT EVER LEARNING ANOTHER LANGUAGE. So, with a tiny computer stuck in your ear (let’s call it Babel Fish 1.0) you will understand what 3 billion people say (out of an estimated world population of 6.7 billion, in 2008).
Based on the ability to communicate through technology, I believe that most of the 3 billion people will not continue to learn languages, since technology alone will permit this. The other half of the world, whose native language is not among the top 20 spoken languages, need only learn 1 of these top 20 languages to then be able to communicate to 100% of the world. There will be no communication incentive for that 47% to learn more than one of the 20 languages. Only those people interested for hobby or linguistic reasons will learn more than their native language and one of the top 20 languages.
Please DO NOT interpret my article to mean that you should not study languages. I share this only so you begin to consider how these inevitable changes will affect you and your interaction with languages in the coming years and decades. I personally continue to study Italian, play around daily with Spanish and look forward to improving my German and Portuguese. From there, Arabic and Mandarin Chinese are probably next on the list.
To conclude the article I offer a list of personal predictions for the future of language learning:
• In 5 years machine language technology will be commonplace. People will be using it for vacation travel and simple verbal communications in person and remotely on their phones, computers and personal devices (iPads for example).
• By 2023 technology will exist as a hearing aid-type device to simultaneously translate conversations.
• The number of languages going extinct will accelerate over the coming 2 decades.
• By 2030, the top 20 languages in the world will be “interchangeable”. If you speak one, then you will “speak” them all.
I am publishing this article to open the discussion on the future of machine translation and specifically how it will influence language learning.
Please feel free to comment, attack, ridicule, debate, support, laugh at, insult and improve upon the ideas. But keep the conversation cordial.
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