There is an Elephant in the Room.

This one might form part 1 of an “I don’t need to learn a language because…” series

Google translate is pretty good, right? I use it, others I know use it, and I find the translations quite good. It is pretty tempting to say, what’s the point of learning a language when this software is so reliable? It can even get most idiomatic expressions right these days. Let me riddle you this Batpeople?  <<READER THINKS>> Oh I get it that is a thing that the Riddler says to Batman, yes… you either got or didn’t get the reference and I will elaborate why. There are several kinds of competence in language. (Oh baby a bullet list.)

  • Grammatical Competence – inflection, word order, ergative alignment… yawn.
  • Pragmatic Competence – what language is used for, e.g. how to give or request information, knowing that when you meet someone, you say hello and introduce yourself etc.
  • Semantic Competence – What does stuff actually mean? Does the saying “When pigs fly” really mean “Never”?
  • Knowing things that Batman’s enemies say.

Let’s evaluate this from the software’s perspective, Grammatical Competence? Check! No worries software can do this and continually refine its algorithms to get more precise. Unless I deliberately break the rules for comic effect I mean… you know that I know the rules, and I know that you know that I know you know that I know the rules. I am as linguists say “flouting the maxims.” Can software really detect my flouting without knowing a bit more about how competent I am with the above competencies, I could be new to English, so my accent may give away I have not broken a grammatical rule deliberately, what is seen as an error in one dialect may be normal in another and what about sarcasm? dead-pan, impersonations? Made up words that still mean something?

I have seen translation software come leaps and bounds, but we are constantly changing the mixture of competencies, contexts, flouting maxims and using non-verbal cues. Writing may be getting there but I think there will be a purely human element to translation and interpretation for some time to come and the only way for software to improve is become more human and have more inputs (visual, background knowledge of who is conversing, for example.)

Besides how will you impress and make someone warm to you by speaking their language, if you are just getting the software to do it for you, you didn’t go the extra mile, and they will know that. Oh and don’t forget the C-word, “Culture” language and culture intermingle when you learn a language they usually throw culture in there too because you do really need it to understand the language properly, this is especially true the more different a language or culture is.

As formerly alive person Nelson Mandela once said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

OK, so in summary translation software for communication is pretty good, no need to learn a language for this. But for the other million uses, nothing beats good old-fashioned human learning and skill.





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