Is there no / any longer a reason / need to learn a foreign language?

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Or, to put it another way, in the words of Douglas Hofstadter,

Learn a Foreign Language Before It’s Too Late

AI translators may seem wondrous but they also erode a major part of what it is to be human.

The Atlantic (7/13/23)

Hofstadter recounts how he spent years of painstaking, hard labor learning more than half a dozen foreign languages, though he never came close to mastering any of them except French and Italian.

But today we have Google Translate. Today we have DeepL. Today we have ChatGPT—and so on. There’s no need for me to list all the powerful technologies that allow anyone today—a monolingual American, say, who has never devoted a single moment to learning, say, Chinese—to write fluent passages in Chinese. Today it’s a piece of cake to send an email in a tongue you don’t know a word of. You just click on “Translate” and presto! There it is! Or at least, there it is, in a certain sense. Assuming that there are no egregious translational blunders (which there often still are), what you are sending off is slick but soulless text.

When we resort to the wonders of AI to read and write foreign languages for us, what are we losing?

For me, using language is the very essence of being human. When I speak, I am communicating not only facts, but a way of being. Through my word choices and subtle intonations and tiny hesitations and droll puns and dumb errors (and so on), I am revealing who I am. I am not a persona, but a person.

Today, though, it strikes me as possible—in fact, quite likely—that humans are collectively going to knuckle under and throw in the towel as far as foreign languages are concerned. Are we language users going to obsequiously hand over all engagement with other tongues to chatbots? Will young people in the coming decades share my youthful ardent desire to tackle towering linguistic Everests demanding long years of dedication? Or will they opt for the helicopter/chatbot pathway, preferring their linguistic lives to be struggle-free? If everything we might ever wish for is just handed to us gratis on a silver platter, then what, I wonder, is the purpose of living?

As my friend David Moser [VHM:  my friend too} put it, what may soon go down the drain forever, thanks to these new AI technologies, is the precious gift that one can gain only by immersing oneself deeply in another culture and thereby acquiring an entirely new set of ways of looking at the world. It’s a gift that can’t help but turn any human being into a far richer and broader one. But David fears that it may soon become as rare as hen’s teeth. And, I might add, David knows perfectly whereof he speaks, because in his 30s he recklessly threw himself into the bustling, boiling cauldron of China and its mysterious languages, and after long years of tenaciously clambering up its nearly vertical slopes (sorry for the mixed metaphor!), he emerged as a marvelously fluent speaker of Chinese, able to come out with breathtakingly witty puns on the fly and to do stand-up comedy on national television, not to mention hosting his own weekly TV show, in Chinese, about little-known facets of Beijing.

To Mo Dawei, as David is known in China, it’s incredibly depressing to contemplate the profound impoverishment of people’s mental and emotional lives that is looming just around every corner of the globe, thanks to the slick seductiveness of AI translation apps, insidiously creeping their way into ordinary people’s lives and sapping their desire to make other tongues their own.

To the thoughts of Hofstadter and Moser, permit me to add a few of my own.

First of all, there are some things I can say in certain languages that I cannot say in others.  For example, in Nepali, I love to say "Bāphre bāph!"  Ditto for "Wah!" in Cantonese.  And how about "Schmetterling"?  Nearly all languages must have a word for "butterfly", but the German one is "something else", eh?  And on and on and on.  This is why I often think in multiple languages to call up the exact images and feelings I want to express.

Next, learning different languages opens up whole realms of intellection that theretofore I didn't even know existed.

The sounds, man, the sounds.  Like "shǎbùlèngdēngde" for "daft" in Mandarin.

For me, learning languages is not drudgery, it's fun.  I think a large part of that is the methods I use:  don't memorize (sǐbèi 死背) vocabulary, grammar, paradigms, or anything else.  Absorb the language through immersion and use.  Expose yourself to as much of the real language as you can get access to.  Read, read, read.  Listen, listen, listen.

This is why, as I travel around the world, I meet young people whose English is astonishingly good and natural, say, in the middle of Kazakhstan — even though they've never been abroad.  When I ask them how they do it, they tell me they watch TV shows and films, listen to popular music, read anime, and so forth.

Finally, I'll conclude by saying a few words about the Middlebury way of learning languages.

Total immersion.

Strict language pledge for the whole summer.

The students enrolled in the Middlebury summer sessions make quantum leaps in their command of whatever language they are learning:  Abenaki, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish.

I jumped from 1st year to 4th year Chinese back in 1968 when I was a summer student at Middlebury.  In the summer of 1972, I was the"bilingual secretary" of the Chinese School, because they needed someone like me to communicate with "the outside world".

If you ever get a chance, go there yourself and get really good at whatever language you're really interested in.  You won't regret it.  But you have to have the time to set aside two months some summer.  Do nothing but learn a language.

A final, final word, suitable for the overall theme of this post.  I have a friend who is enrolled in the 2nd year level of the German School this summer.  Of course, she has taken the language pledge, so she won't communicate in any language other than German while she is at Middlebury.  She writes to me in flawless, flowing, idiomatic German, all coming out of her own brain. My German is good enough that I can understand 95% of what she writes on the first pass and can pick up the rest with the aid of a dictionary.  When I write back, I make a rough draft with the aid of AI, then revise it according to my own taste.  The problem is that I can't get the Du and Sie forms right.  Gender, tenses, mood, etc. are all problematic.  It's like when I speak Russian:  my Russian friends call it "grammarless Russian", and I'm content with that, so long as I get my ideas across.  I used to score high on "communicative competence" tests in many languages that I didn't know very well by traditional standards because I was clever at devising makeshift means for conveying what it was that I wanted to say.

Be bold, be brave.  Just do it.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 7:07 am

    So, Worf & Sapir may have been onto something? ;-)

    And there's the converse of it — are we spending more and more time talking to machines and less and less time talking to flesh-and-blood, beating-heart, children-of-G-d human beings?

  2. Tom G said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 7:23 am

    Conversely, is this a positive development because now there is less need for people who don't speak English to continue to use their native language? Does this technology preserve the variety of languages because people can speak their mother tongue in their community but use translators to speak outside of it?

  3. David Chop said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 8:22 am

    If you're planning on living in another country and *not* learning the local language, you've made a bad plan. For day to day stuff (e.g. getting a meal, buying laundry detergent, etc.) today's tech is a pretty decent crutch. But that's all it is, a crutch. For any kind of meaningful human to human interaction or relationships with the locals you've just got to knuckle down and learn to speak their language. The tech doesn't even come close to being a substitute.

    Source: American living in Thailand. Try sticking your phone in the face of an officer down at the Immigration Bureau and see how far that gets you LOL.

  4. Pamela said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 8:29 am

    May I rephrase the question? Is there no / any longer a reason / need to continue neuronal development of the brain? In the cases of some individuals, maybe not.

  5. Ross Presser said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 9:10 am

    It was Douglas Hofstadter's seminal book _Godel, Escher, Bach_ that taught me so many things back in 1982 when I read it first. Among them was John Searle's "Chinese Room" argument / thought experiment, which apparently has finally come to exist to some extent, in the form of LLMs: that a machine could conceivably process Chinese language questions and answer them without actually understanding Chinese or even being conscious. That's a precise description of how LLMs answer questions these days.

    The other memory this brings back is the continual denouncement of new communication technologies, going back to Plato denouncing writing in _Phaedrus_:

    > For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

    And similar arguments through the centuries against log tables, slide rules, electronic calculators as being likely to destroy the ability to do arithmetic.

    Certainly some arts have been nearly eradicated by writing: you don't see a lot of people reciting hundreds of thousands of lines of epic poems from memory these days. And certainly whenever a human internalizes a process like a language, they get to incorporate much more of what is human about them (as Hofstadter puts it) into their speech, versus just letting someone or something else make the translation for them.

    I won't say Hofstadter is wrong. Machine translation, if not checked, is going to ruin language learning the same way that LLM use by students, if not checked, is going to ruin homework. But look at what writing brought us that memorization didn't: the entire world of literature. Look at what electronic computation brought us that human arithmetic didn't: the worlds of fractals and Ramsey theory and Pixar movies and Wifi-connected laundry washing. (Okay, that last one is a bit of a joke.) Humans will make any new technology their own and will do astonishing things with it.

  6. Allison said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 10:12 am

    If you want to really understand what someone is saying (or writing) in a foreign language, you have to learn the language. Translating what is said or written so as to actually get the sense across is hard, even when done by the best human translators, and there's always something lost. Even when there aren't any nuances to worry about, you have to understand the subject or context of the text if you don't want to end up with a horrible mistranslation. (E.g., you have to know physics to translate physics articles.)

    And an awful lot of language involves lots of nuances — cultural context, situational context, conventional ways of expressing things that are never spoken explicitly, etc. A simple example is when to use the formal vs. personal forms of words in European languages. (I understand it's far more complex in Japanese.) I would not want to try doing international negotiations using even the best AI machine translation, let alone the likes of Google Translate.

    (I sometimes read stories that have conversations in a foreign language, and it's often painfully obvious that they've used Google Translate without actually understanding the language.)

  7. Coby said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 11:03 am

    The tone of this argument is similar to the one bemoaning the loss of topolects and ethnolects in the face of standards. But has it done any good?

  8. Elizabeth Barber said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 12:44 pm

    My favorite AI translation of a letter, sent from Russia to someone in the USA, began:
    "Expensive Anatole, …"

  9. AntC said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 3:16 pm

    [Hofstadter] Today it’s a piece of cake to send an email in a tongue you don’t know a word of. You just click on “Translate” and presto!

    Can I just pour cold water on all this hype. There is seldom "presto!" There is usually incomprehensible garbage. The machines are nowhere near taking over. This hypothetical email is as likely to cause grave offence or be met with blank stares as convey anything, let alone convey something close to my intent.

  10. Chas Belov said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 4:09 pm

    ¡This! I've studied Spanish and Cantonese, never got good in either one. I like to say I speak them better than I understand them, because when I speak I only say words I know, but when other people speak they use words I don't know. But in general, I've always had challenges in listening comprehension, even in my native English.

    As bad as my Spanish and Cantonese are, I still feel enriched by my study. I do try to use them now and then in multilingual San Francisco – it particularly helps me in my website work at a government agency – while trying to keep track of which restaurant and shop staff at various businesses I frequent are amenable to my speaking to them in non-English and which ones want to deal with me in English only and respecting their agency.

    I regularly watch subtitled content in various languages, and, over time, I do start to notice sometimes where there's a difference between the subtitles and what nuance the character is giving to their words. (I've also sometimes been fortunate to watch a show where the translator has added an annotation to a particular translation to contextualize it.)

    I also make a lot of use of Google Translate for understanding lyrics of the multilingual songs I listen to. (The lyrics of Czech folk-pop group Jananas are particularly acerbicly witty.) I can see where the translation sometimes goes batshit, but the time it would take for me to get to the level of Czech to understand more than the occasional word or two is not available to me.

    I love learning about languages, but learning languages has not been my strength. I got straight A's in my first two years of Spanish in high school, but walked into the first day of third-year Spanish, took one look at the book, realized I was going to flunk, and dropped the course.

    In my adult years, I signed up for a French course, went to one class where the teacher told me my pronunciation was perfect. (I was seeing French films often at the time.) But I took one look at the spelling and one listen to their consonant-dropping and freaked. I immediately dropped the class.

    Someone once told me that you have to be willing to make mistakes, and that my problem was that I was too afraid to make mistakes. Perhaps the most important quality a person needs to succeed at language learning is fearlessness.

  11. Peter Taylor said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 4:49 pm

    My opinion of Google Translate is that if it's into a language I know then it's quicker to do it myself than correct the mistakes, and otherwise it needs careful checking afterwards. E.g. writing to a hotel to make a reservation, whether I translate from English to Portuguese or from Spanish to Portuguese it gets the verb conjugations wrong and I have to correct them with the aid of Wiktionary.

  12. Chester Draws said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 4:58 pm

    the precious gift that one can gain only by immersing oneself deeply in another culture and thereby acquiring an entirely new set of ways of looking at the world.

    Except, of course, that it is now much easier to dip one's toes into another culture, thanks to translation software.

    I have been able to travel in Eastern Europe relatively pain free thanks to 1) someone will speak a language in common with me (English mostly, but others too) and 2) I can translate any instructions or warnings I meet in the host language.

    I think AI (and everyone learning English) is going to vastly increase the amount people will communicate with the rest of the world outside their native language. It will be a very good thing.

    LL is not normal with regards to language, or anything much really. I can't take two months off to immerse myself in Russian, no matter how much fun it might be, and how useful I would find it, due to my interest in Russian history. I have a job that I cannot just leave, and a family that would not thank me, even if I could.

    But it wouldn't be fun for me anyway, as I have the sort of brain that struggles with language. I have had to learn a couple, by living in other countries, but at no point was that fun. In fact it was a massive chore, and I have never felt enriched by the experience. Not once.

    So for people like me — and we make up the majority of the world — AI translation will open doors otherwise shut. LL is a self-selecting community and far from reflective of other people's tastes and abilities.

    Imagine going to a computing forum and seeing people scoff at you because you haven't bothered to take a couple of months off to learn another programming language. That what this conversation feels like to most people. (BTW, I have learned more than one programming language too, and never felt enriched by that either.)

  13. Thomas said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 1:26 am

    Of course Google Translate will do well at translating basic stuff, but try and walk into a restaurant with a handwritten Japanese menu and all the capabilities of AI will get you nowhere if the waiting staff isn't super nice and helpful. Outside the service industry, if someone wants to talk with me using machine translation, I will not bother unless forced to. This is the status quo. In the future, who knows.

  14. Taylor, Philip said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 7:54 am

    Chester D — "So for people like me — and we make up the majority of the world — AI translation will open doors otherwise shut". I wonder whether that might be more accurately expressed as "… the majority of the English-speaking world …" — in my experience, most nationalitites relish the opportunity to learn one or more foreign languages (example — my wife, Chinese/Vietnamese, speaks Vietnamese, English, German, Cantonese and is reasonably fluent in Mandarin). It is (IMHO) primarily the English-speaking nations that are so resistant to the idea that learning one or more foreign languages might a Very Good Idea.

  15. Mark Metcalf said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 10:09 am

    As one of my MA thesis readers liked to say "Translation is transference, not equivalence."
    And he was a professor of English.

  16. Kenny Easwaran said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 1:31 pm

    As Chester Draws says, I think there's a possibility that all this translation technology will actually lead more people to learn *more* languages, rather than fewer. When you don't have access to translation technology, the barrier of entry to a foreign language is very daunting – you won't really be able to read anything more than children's books or signage for quite a while, let alone have a conversation. But with translation technology, you can get started using the language right away, and gradually improve your understanding with practice. You don't have to be a fluent speaker to be able to look at an automated translation and understand a few tweaks that need to be made and a few misunderstandings that could be avoided – just a few months of study will be enough for a lot of that.

  17. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 6:45 am

    Quoth Goethe:
    „Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen.“

  18. Wolfgang Behr said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 2:50 am

    Very nice Goethe quote, same reasoning as in his more famous

    Wer nicht von dreitausend Jahren
    Sich weiß Rechenschaft zu geben,
    Bleib im Dunkeln unerfahren,
    Mag von Tag zu Tage leben.

    (Gedichte. West-östlicher Divan, 1814 – 1819. Buch des Unmuts. Aus: Und wer franzet oder britet)

    Hofstaedter's essay could be complemented by a recent paper "Monolingualism is a body modification practice" by Mélanie Jouitteau, available here: She concludes that "The social practice of monolingualism forces the faculty of language (the linguistic brain organ) into a state of functional atrophy." and that "monolingualism is very similar, in its techniques and results, to the tight lacing of girls or foot binding, in the sense that it modifies the body and results in a functional atrophy, an adaptative handicap compensated by a cultural reward." (by the nation state, that is).

  19. Victor Mair said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 6:51 am

    For the monolinguals or the multilinguals who don't know German, here are the Goethe quotations from the previous two comments translated into English:


    "If you don't know foreign languages, you don't know anything about your own."

    That's done by GT, and I — a human who is reasonably proficient in German — couldn't have done it any better.


    Who is not of three thousand years

    know how to account

    stay inexperienced in the dark,

    May live from day to day.


    Who is not three thousand years old

    He knows how to give account,

    Stay inexperienced in the dark,

    May live from day to day


    Whoever does not live from three thousand years

    Knows how to give an account,

    Stay inexperienced in the dark,

    May live from day to day


    Who does not know from three thousand years

    Knows how to give an account,

    Remain inexperienced in the dark,

    May live from day to day.



  20. Victor Mair said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 6:58 am

    As for Mélanie Jouitteau's conclusion that "The social practice of monolingualism forces the faculty of language (the linguistic brain organ) into a state of functional atrophy", it recapitulates Pamela's rephrased question above: "Is there no / any longer a reason / need to continue neuronal development of the brain?"

  21. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 3:01 pm

    A man who has no acquaintance with foreign languages knows nothing of his own. (tr. Saunders) [NB kennen ~= connaître; wissen ~= savoir]

    Let him who fails to learn and mark
    Three thousand years still stay,
    Void of experience, in the dark,
    And live from day to day.
    (tr. Dowden)

    Three cheers for the human translator. (The bot translations sound like something Judith Butler might have produced.)

    As for the French policy of enforcing monoglottism, intensified after 1945 – for obvious reasons – the consequences were not exactly beneficial (that's the better part of Joultteau's argument, once you strip out the neurobabble). Similar arguments can be made about the infamous Bill 101 in Québec.

    (cf. Clemenceau's « Donnez-moi quarante trous du cul et je vous fais une Académie française. » -never was prescriptivism more aptly characterized.)

  22. Wolfgang Behr said,

    July 18, 2023 @ 1:47 am

    Thank you, Victor and Olaf, for the Goethe translations, ranging from barely faith- to truly beautiful. The Clemenceau quote is priceless, too: very much appreciated.

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