Is there no / any longer a reason / need to learn a foreign language?, part 2

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People, including serious linguists, are beginning to wonder:

John McWhorter, "Are translation apps making the learning of foreign languages obsolete?", NYT 7/25/2023

I remember a time, not too long ago, when John was making a serious effort to learn Mandarin, because he often asked me cogent questions about the language and wanted to know the best methods for learning it.

What we can learn from the Tower of Babel

In Europe, nine out of 10 students study a foreign language. In the United States, only one in five do. Between 1997 and 2008, the number of American middle schools offering foreign languages dropped from 75 percent to 58 percent. Between 2009 and 2013, one American college closed its foreign language program; between 2013 and 2017, 651 others did the same.

At first glance, these statistics look like a tragedy. But I am starting to harbor the odd opinion that maybe they are not. What is changing my mind is technology.

Before last Christmas, for example, I was introduced to ChatGPT by someone who had it write an editorial on a certain topic in my “style.” Intriguing enough. But then it was told to translate the editorial into Russian. It did so, instantly — and I have it on good authority that, while hardly artful, the Russian was quite serviceable.

And what about spoken language? I was in Belgium not long ago, and I watched various tourists from a variety of nations use instant speech translation apps to render their own languages into English and French. The newer ones can even reproduce the tone of the speaker’s voice; a leading model, iTranslate, publicizes that its Translator app has had 200 million downloads so far.

Because I love trying to learn languages and am endlessly fascinated by their varieties and complexities, I am working hard to wrap my head around this new reality. With an iPhone handy and an appropriate app downloaded, foreign languages will no longer present most people with the barrier or challenge they once did. Learning to genuinely speak a new language will hardly be unknown. It will continue to beckon, for instance, for those actually relocating to a new country. And it will persist with people who want to engage with literature or media in the original language, as well as those of us who find pleasure in mastering these new codes just because they are “there.” In other words, it will likely become an artisanal pursuit, of interest to a much smaller but more committed set of enthusiasts. And weird as that is, it is in its way a kind of progress.

The Tower of Babel is one of my favorite myths.  Around 25 years ago, I even wrote a novel called China Babel (still unpublished — I never tried to publish it because I was afraid it might be too provocative for culturally unprogressive folks, though I did publish its sister novel, The Archeology of Lost Affection, which predicted the end of the ideology of that parable. I used to have about fifty artworks depicting the Babel myth hanging on the walls of my office, but I packed them up and put them in a box about a quarter of a century ago, because I thought, even then, that Babel was passé.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. Reader said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 10:23 am

    Without expressing an opinion of my own, I simply don't comprehend the basis for the change of heart. The old motivations for native English children learning second languages were rarely practical, since only a minority would need the skill in the ordinary course of life. The motivations were largely cultural. How does any of that change?

  2. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 11:47 am

    @Reader: Well, if you think of American children, then maybe. But for people whose L1 is not English, there used to be a motivation based on a need to communicate. This may be gone pretty soon. It will be interesting to see what the English-teaching industry does about this.

    I wholly agree that learning foreign languages will go the way of producing books as illuminated manuscripts. Strictly for hobbyists.

  3. Paul Clapham said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 11:58 am

    I've seen/heard those translation apps used by taxi drivers in Argentina. They are not bad except when the driver says "you" in Spanish it comes out as "they" in English because of how polite speech works in Spanish.

    That's okay for taxi drivers, it gets the job done, but if you're going to be, say, a tour guide in Argentina then you're really going to need to communicate face-to-face in competent English. So I don't see the apps taking over just yet.

  4. David Moser said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 1:05 pm

    Another aspect occurs to me. McWhorter is probably correct in predicting that learning foreign languages will become a kind of "artisanal pursuit" in the future. But given that Engllsh is and will continue to be the lingua franca of the world, non-native speakers of English will probably continue to strive for basic fluency in the language, if for no other reason than the economic and career advantages. My worry is that this trend will merely cement the dominance of English, and other languages that might have otherwise been attractive for various reasons, will simply continue to fall by the wayside. Language death is already a sad reality in the world today; we might expect many more extinctions as the century moves forward.

  5. Terry K. said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 4:23 pm

    Regarding Spanish and a taxi driver's "you" sentence getting translated to "they", if it was indeed "they", and not "their" or "theirs", or "them" as an object of a verb) the problem is actually because Spanish allows dropping of subject pronouns. No reasonably competent translator, computer or human, will translate any of the Spanish "you" subject pronouns as "they". But if the taxi driver drops the "ustedes" (plural "you" in the Americas; formal/polite plural "you" in Spain) and let's context make it clear what the subject is, a translator (including a computer translator) who doesn't pick that up from context will likely pick "they". Spanish does not require subject pronouns, though they can be used for clarity or emphasis.

  6. Terry K. said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 4:34 pm

    Related to the above, the bigger picture, though, is that, yes getting the context correct in order to correctly translate what's ambiguous in one language is a translation issue, which depends in part on the information given to whoever or whatever is doing the translating.

  7. Chester Draws said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 6:05 pm

    David Moser — you said, "My worry is that this trend will merely cement the dominance of English, and other languages that might have otherwise been attractive for various reasons,"

    What reasons?

    Most people learn a language for : the desire to speak a common language with other people in the world, the need to speak the local language, and the desire to speak your family's or culture's language. None of these are particularly threatened by machine translators.

    But the other reasons for learning a language are either not threatened — some people find it fun, some need it for their work or hobby — or are largely imaginary IMO.

    The only reasons I can otherwise think of for learning another language are those where you are obliged to because other people insist on it. Learning a second language to become a better "all round person" fails at the first real examination. Why not insist on the history of other countries instead of their language? Why not economics? Sometimes people insist, excruciatingly, on Algebra, for pretty much the same bogus reasoning, at significant mental cost to many.

  8. Scott P. said,

    July 29, 2023 @ 7:27 am

    Algebra is probably the single most useful skill of all those you have mentioned. Practically every element of modern life is grounded in an algebraic foundation.

  9. Hill Gates said,

    July 30, 2023 @ 7:19 pm

    This approach is even more useful for dealing with the problem of children having to learn East Asian characters. The new technology of alphabetizing was invented a mere 3000 years ago and applied to Chinese languages at least 200 y.a. It’s unlikely that anyone would stop people learning characters for artistic/ artisan reasons, and millions of young minds would gain some breathing room. Or would that be rushing things?

  10. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 31, 2023 @ 7:04 am

    It seems like a lot of the pearl-clutching and hand-waving on both sides is done without a lot of concrete illustration as to what's actually going on.

    But here's an example to flesh out the tautology that, the more you know, the more you know. We're in Boca Raton, Florida, yesterday at the IHOP and it's 1:00 p.m. We haven't gone to Mass yet, and the plane home leaves from Ft. Lauderdale airport at 8:57. The last Mass of the day is at 1:30, but it's in Spanish, so that's our Mass. We're a family of 5; we move nowhere quickly.

    I don't speak a word of non-food Spanish, but I learned French and Italian in school, and picked up a smattering of Latin, Provençal, and Romanian. What all of this active and passive learning did was to create a "structure" within the ol' wet gray meatloaf, within which the various thinky-parts are able to "build" a provisional model of "Spanish" that will be good enough to get me through the Mass.

    So, knowing the Mass in Latin already, by the time the priest got to the homily, I was able to sort of "figure out" what he was saying by applying "educated guesses" to what I was hearing. I think this was only possible because the priest more or less restricted himself to theological concepts surrounding the three readings, and "sapienza", "predestinacion / volunta libra", and "el reis del ciel", are concepts that, thankfully, don't require much diversion into dialect.

    But the point is, I could have popped in my ear buds and listened to some computerized version of English gallumphing sìn anima through the Mass, but, even though I'm sure I didn't entiendo every palabra, the mental (and spiritual?) "work" involved in mobilizing all my fleshy neural centers was probably better for me.

  11. Chas Belov said,

    August 1, 2023 @ 11:25 pm

    I took Spanish in high school and a refresher course in my 30's or 40's. I took three semesters of Cantonese in my late 30's. I never got good at either one. But I occasionally use bits of each as I eat and shop in the San Francisco Bay Area. But most – not all – shopkeepers and waiters prefer to deal with me in English or a mix. Still, those who do want to interact with me in Spanish or Cantonese seem to enjoy it. At least it's good to know how to be polite or the names of various dishes.

    But I feel like my life has been enriched by my study, something I don't get when I use a translation program.

    I listen to popular music in different languages, the more languages the better. If they make the lyrics available, I'll sometimes run them through a translator, to mixed results. I do wonder how accurate they are but don't really have a way to validate it beyond the lines that clearly don't make sense in English.

    I also wonder about intentional data poisoning a la the Monty Python sketch.

  12. Neil said,

    August 3, 2023 @ 3:07 am

    It's very funny that Chinese students need to learn English from an early age. Cuz the information given by our teachers is that English is the most popular and wildly used language all over the world.

  13. Alyssa said,

    August 3, 2023 @ 5:44 pm

    Even before translation apps, most people really overestimated the practical usefulness of learning a second language. A little basics can be useful when traveling, but until you get to actual fluency the incremental benefits from there are pretty minimal. And getting to actual fluency takes massive effort over many years.

    I do think learning some language to an intermediate level is still something everyone should do in school, since it exposes you to how language works more broadly (so you don't end up with silly ideas like "all languages are just word-for-word translations of each other"). But if you already speak English and have no plans to live anywhere that isn't English-speaking, there's never really been any practical benefit in speaking a foreign language, even before machine translation got good.

  14. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 4:59 pm

    "if you already speak English and have no plans to live anywhere that isn't English-speaking, there's never really been any practical benefit in speaking a foreign language" — I could not agree less, Alyssa. I have never lived (qua lived) anywhere other than the United Kingdom, but I have travelled in (amongst others) France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Tibet, Nepal, China and Japan. And in every one of those countries, a slight familiarity with the language has been an enormous boon. Unlike some of my friends, I do not feel comfortable going into a shop (or restaurant) and just pointing at what I want — if I cannot ask for it in the shop-keeper's or restaurateur's language, then I do not want to go inside.

  15. Chas Belov said,

    August 6, 2023 @ 3:48 am

    Wouldn't you know, twice today I had to use my wretched Cantonese to let a Cantonese speaker know how soon a bus or train was coming when they didn't understand my English information.

  16. Chas Belov said,

    August 6, 2023 @ 3:50 am

    Actually, the best reason why one would be better off learning another language is to appreciate how difficult it can be to learn another language, and gain empathy for others who need to learn your language.

  17. Paul said,

    August 8, 2023 @ 11:49 am

    "getting to actual fluency takes massive effort over many years" – it really depends.

    "if you already speak English and have no plans to live anywhere that isn't English-speaking" – some of us developed such plans, or stumbled into the situation with useful abilities to build on, years after the decision to learn another language was made on our behalf, in childhood.

    Will the automated translators also eventually do an AR-style visual layover on people's faces and bodies to show their mouths and faces as producing the words that are being played through the earphones, translate gesture vocabularies and characteristic forms of emotional-bodily expression into the equivalents from the recipient's home language/context? Or is this all supposed to be just a step on the (now short?) path to a Single Universal Language?

  18. Angus said,

    August 10, 2023 @ 12:55 am

    If the whole reason to learn a language is to translate then, then good translation apps would make that obsolete. I suspect most non-Anglos learn a second language to _communicate_, not to translate.

    "getting to actual fluency takes massive effort over many years" — this better reflects the piss-poor way that second-language education is carried out in English-speaking countries than it does the actual difficulty of learning a second language. Millions upon millions of people around the world learn a second (or third, or fourth) language without filling their days with hours of cramming their heads full of grammar rules, declension tables & so on.

  19. Paul said,

    August 10, 2023 @ 7:26 am

    Well said about communication, Angus, and I agree about language learning (some of it may also be the same type of bias that leads many Americans to think, deep down, that English is or should be a universal linguistic and cultural skeleton key).

    I suspect that (reliably, generally) good translation apps are going to need to understand things, including situations, emotions, irony, maybe bodily expressions, etc. Not to mention take into account generational and other group creativity and variation in language use, concepts, references and whatnot. We're not there now, and it seems to me that the widespread desire to think we already (almost?) are doesn't help keep the real situation clear.

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