Point of View


As Tech Advances, Don’t Ignore the Human Factor

by Clifton Chestnut

I recently overheard a father at an airport passionately tell a stranger how his son would eventually study abroad in China. The dad confidently predicted that if his son mastered Mandarin, the world’s most widely spoken native tongue, he’d be set for life.

Maybe the dad’s right—and a lot of companies are betting on it.

Google just released wireless earbuds that can translate speech between languages and respond through a smartphone. The innovation is sure to save time—and perhaps some embarrassment—for tourists who stumble through a menu they can’t understand when they just want the chicken.

Language is big business. The British Council estimates digital English language learning revenues reached $2.6 billion in 2016. A separate report expects the global market for apps, e-books, and other digital tools for English instruction to swell 23% by 2021.

Still, language learning in many ways remains a non-digital affair. Sticking with a conversation—and getting the jokes—takes a degree of mastery that’s hard to achieve through an app. That’s where the human element comes in.

I think back often on my own life-changing experience living in Spain while teaching English to children, teens, and adults. Over the course of a decade, my students ranged from beginners abruptly cast into international jobs to proficient speakers cramming for graduate school entrance exams.

Yes, we discussed the finer points of participles. But we also ventured into politics, customs in the business world, and popular culture—theirs and mine. Some days we dissected phrases in English and debated whether grammar rules were simpler in Spanish. We dug into American English and British equivalents; words like the U.K.-favored “knapsack” come to mind. Or watched TV clips to hear Will Smith’s real voice—a testament to Spain’s long tradition of dubbing foreign movies and TV shows into Spanish.

Time and again students reminded me that the personal connections that come with speaking in a foreign language are essential to the learning process. You quickly realize the value of simplicity, using active sentences and words that everyone can understand. If you’re speaking with someone where they’re the native speaker, you appreciate more than ever when they speak clearly and slowly. Those skills transcend borders.

It’s encouraging that technology is giving us new ways to get exposed to languages. We can all benefit when we stretch our linguistic talents. But learning a language isn’t just about learning the vocabulary, the cognates, and the verb tenses. It’s about learning how to use the language to convey an idea, tell a joke, and, yes, order a meal the way you want it. Language is a human skill, not a machine output, and no machine can replace the real work of learning.

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