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Since 2006, Google translate has become an increasingly sophisticated tool for changing text from one language to another. It has been a lifesaver while living abroad, and was my crutch when I had required language courses during university.

If you use Google Chrome to do your browsing, you may notice a small microphone at the bottom of your text box when you visit Google translate.  As of 2011 there is now a voice input feature supporting 15 languages with more coming. I highly recommend you play around with this tool and see how accurate it is in capturing your voice. Our team was highly impressed.

And then, we stopped and thought – Is this the beginning of the end of language learning? Could language classes be replaced by a tiny, free or inexpensive app on a mobile device? In 5 or 15 years will it make sense to learn new languages as adults?

From an economical perspective we say absolutely not! If you could communicate with anyone in the world using a highly reliable translation service you could spend hours upon hours learning other new skills such as negotiations, management and communications. The return on investment from these other personal development efforts would more than outweigh the benefits from personally being able to speak to someone in another language. Just image what it will be like when you will be able to video chat with people from across the world with real time voice translation. It’s a reality that’s closer then we might imagine.

If, from an economic perspective, it won’t make sense to spend time learning another language, then why would people continue to do so. What are the payoffs of learning another language? I once heard a quote (although I can not find the source) that said

“Learning another language opens your mind to a new way of seeing the world”.

The amount of culture, history and even psychology (see Found in Language – Lost in Translation) that is embedded in a language is truly mind stretching. Common phrases, idioms, and slang are the heart of a language, giving it it’s vitality and personality. I have a friend from a small town in western China who told me that in Nantong to say ”Hello, how are you?” you say “Have you eaten?” In English we would assume that statement to be an invitation for dinner, however in rural Nantong it simply shows how important food and meals are to their culture and daily life. Learning this honestly warmed my heart – seeing the true values of a group of people through their language.

More and more blogs and websites are being translated into multiple languages. Soon popular social media platforms will support langage translation to allow international friends to easily connect and communicate. The language barrier can now become the language window in which we are able to view the world from another perspective. As stated by Ezra Pound

“The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language.”

So what do we loose by not learning other languages – What do you think?


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