If I wanted to sensationalize this blog post, I would come up with a statement along the lines of “Computerized Translators Are Replacing ESL Teachers!” but we’re not quite there. Yet.
I recently read a blog post called Google Translate: The End of the Road for Interpreters? and was surprised at some of the advances that have been made, though perhaps I shouldn’t be.
It’s not uncommon for friends to post messages on Facebook in their native language and then read them using Google Translate. A message thread from a diverse group of people could yield a handful of different messages all on the same topic. By cutting and pasting text into the Google Translate box, the language is recognized and translated. It’s not perfect, but in a couple of seconds, it does a pretty good job considering the price (free!).
Now, in addition to translating, Google also offers phonetic translations and, in some cases, a “listen” option, which “reads” the passage aloud. Again, not perfect, but impressive. Watch the video below to see extra spicy Indian food ordered in Hindi.
Also impressive are mobile apps which recognize writing and translate it on the fly. One example is Word Lens, below. A colleague recently showed me this app on his iPhone and it works as depicted. Again, not perfect, but the overall effect is almost magical.
So, will these new tools make ESL teachers and other language teachers obsolete? Not exactly. But as they get better (and they are getting better — what do you think Google is doing with all of that data it’s sitting on?) it may cause some of our future students to ask themselves, Why should I learn a language when there’s an app for that? Is holding up a smartphone to a sign or person speaking a foreign language the same as interacting directly in that language? Does it compare to the cognitive benefits of being truly multilingual? Of course not. But as it becomes easier, cheaper, faster, more convenient, and more socially acceptable to communicate with these tools, it’s going to be harder and harder to find reasons to spend the time, effort, and money to learn another language.