Microsoft Unveils Skype Speech Translator, But Don't Ditch Your Vocab Flash Cards

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This week at the code/conference, Microsoft executives showed off an impressive feat of real-time conversational interpretation integrated with Skype. I can't wait to get my hands on it. At the same time, as a native Mandarin speaker and a diligent student of English and German, I can’t help asking myself whether machine translation signals the obsolescence of learning a foreign language. I’d like to share with you three points of reflection before you trade in your grammar book and unbookmark Crazy Fresh Chinese.

  1. Speaking another language is about more than just cutting a deal. Language learning is more than “transactional communication.” By transactional, I mean communication aimed at acquiring and negotiating facts. I have no doubt that machine translation will dramatically improve and transform our lives beyond our imagination, just as the advent of ever cheaper and more powerful personal and cloud computing devices has done. However, what we fundamentally desire are technologies that enhance our human experience, not just improve the efficiency of transactions. Speech is a fundamentally human experience, similar to cooking. Driving, by contrast, is transactional for most people (exceptions being Formula-1 and New York City drivers, for whom it’s deeply emotional). That's why it’d be much more palatable for me to imagine a future with driverless cars: operating a motor vehicle just isn't as visceral an experience to us compared with speaking and preparing food. Imagine a robot chef in the future that's able to cook for you exactly as your loved ones would. Would you still pass up a homemade meal by your loved one?
  2. We can’t augment our taste buds, retina, or cochlea, but we can flex our tongues to speak another tongue. I envy our pets’ ability to smell and hear in a wider range, but I can't alter my own ranges. Language learning, on the other hand, actually broadens my range of sensitivities with which I appreciate and engage with the world. If you've ever seen a modern photograph of the universe, oftentimes it's captured through sensors that can detect light outside the range of human vision. Machine translation will be every bit as magical as the Hubble Space Telescope — by showing us a bigger world beyond the limit of our senses. But every time I look at these images from Hubble, I can't stop wishing that my own eyes could be trained to appreciate the immense beauty of the universe. Luckily, when it comes to speech, the act of learning and mastering another language is an unparalleled experience in expanding our range of sensitivity and satisfying our innate curiosity. We ought not to deprive ourselves of that pleasure.
  3. With the power of billions of calculations per second in our palms, math education is still required. Compared to other domains of learning, it seems that the faster our chips become, the more emphasis we put on math and science education for all students. We're not expecting all of our students to become mathematicians, though we believe it's vital for our society to be attuned to mathematical and scientific thinking. Similarly, foreign language study isn't about training every learner to be a translator, rather a society that internalizes mutual trust, respect, and the disposition to collaborate. These are essential to a world seeking security and prosperity for all.

The onset of machine translation should galvanize learners and educators to rethink the fundamental purpose of language learning. We need to contemplate a future where machine translators will be more accurate and fluent than the average person, just as calculators have long surpassed us in speed and precision. So, what’s the purpose of language instruction in a new age? It should be about higher-order competencies beyond fluency. With our economy and lives increasingly globalized, foreign language learning offers a unique opportunity to develop humanistic aspects of a set of global competencies paramount to one's productivity and success.

I know I will embrace machine translation wholeheartedly; it's immensely liberating for me talk to people with whom I don’t share a common language. But even more so, it will reveal new unknowns for me where hidden beauty can only be fully appreciated through further learning.

Finally, in a speech he gave recently at Asia Society, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd remarked that "learning another's language is a simple mark of respect." Just yesterday, I couldn't get Skype to maintain a steady connection; so, respect may be farther down the road for a machine to master.

Let me know what you think in the comments section below, or on Twitter: @germanjue

About the Author

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Jeff Wang is the director for Education and Chinese Language Initiatives. He focuses on increasing awareness and capacity among educators and policymakers to create and advocate for language learning, partnerships, and exchanges.