Thursday, 16 April 2015

Language Learning, Digital Humanities, and the Future

I am going with a blog post to talk about the possible future of language learning on the internet because this is something that invites a lot more dialogue than it can hope to resolve. Personally, I see three issues to consider, and I'll write a bit on each of them: Firstly, the immersion and instruction resources using the internet; Secondly, the increasing dominance of the English language; Lastly, the possible irrelevance from the first two as translation technology improves.

The first is probably the easiest and most pleasant to consider. As my project sought to demonstrate, the internet offers a previously unthinkable level of cultural and linguistic access to far-off cultures. Though regional copyrights do exist and serve to restrict access to some content, it is quite clear that a little bit of persistence and some basic language skills can open up a plethora of immersion opportunities. In addition, websites like duolingo and programs like Rosetta Stone use computers and the internet to teach a language from the basics up. Humanities experts played very significant roles in developing these tools, and duolingo in particular is still looking to hire scholars who are trained in traditional education methods.

The expansion of these tools could serve to encourage people to broaden their cultural horizons in their spare time, and help to teach people new language skills that may then aid their professional pursuits. Perhaps more significantly, these resources can be used by people who are not native English speakers to teach themselves English – possibly opening up opportunities they would otherwise be denied.

This segues well into the next possibility, which is that English continues to grow in significance, partly aided by the internet. English is already estimated to be the second most widely spoken language, second only to Mandarin Chinese. The demographic difference between these two languages is quite telling, as the vast majority of Chinese speakers know it as their primary language, while the majority of English speakers know it as a second or third language. Most of the biggest websites outside of China's special sphere are English-language websites such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter. These websites offer translation options and in the case of Facebook and Twitter allow users to experience the site through their own communities, but still exist as something that is still English, or at the very least Western.

It is difficult to say whether this may contribute to the expansion of English as the global lingua franca. This could be counteracted by the first scenario, though the third could very well make them both mostly irrelevant.

Digital translation tools are a relatively new technology, but are improving at a striking pace. Google is particularly notable in pioneering this, mostly through Google Translate. It is still a very flawed tool, but translation technology seems a great deal ahead of the likes of babelfish some ten years ago. While often technically incorrect, from my personal experience using Google Translate, it seems to do a pretty decent job translating the meaning of messages even when they are stripped from nearly all the context that often determines what the real meaning should be. The potential for Google Translate to provide real-time translating through a device like Google Glass could create a watershed moment in linguistics, at least as it applies to your average person who isn't actively working to learn another language.

What would the future of Language Education be in that scenario? It seems risky to presume that technology will never be good enough to translate effectively enough to make learning languages obsolete for practical purposes. The discipline itself could very well be challenged to defend its existence, though it is likely that many would still seek to learn another language for the cultural understanding that it offers.

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