The forbidden tool of foreign language classes in schools around the world is continuing to become more powerful. That’s right, Google Translate recently launched a feature called “Interpreter Mode” for Android and iOS phones.
The new feature can translate conversations in real time into 27 different languages. This adds on to an already impressive list of abilities that the application provides, including handwriting and smartphone camera translation.
With such powerful translation tools available for free on smartphones, language learning can sometimes seem pointless. Some may wonder why they should spend several years learning extensive vocabulary lists and grammatical structures just to translate things that everyone else already could using a free app on their phone? After four years of Spanish classes, machine translators still have a far greater vocabulary than I do, and that’s just for one language. Google Translate could do 103 languages as of 2016.
However, Google Translate and other machine translators are far from replacing the importance of learning a foreign language. True understanding of a language demands more than a simple comprehension of vocabulary and grammar structures. Instead, it requires cultural competency, preparing the speaker for a context where the knowledge of a foreign language would be useful.
I am currently a volunteer at El Centro de Las Américas, an organization that provides support for Lincoln’s Hispanic families in health, education, family support, youth empowerment and resource navigation. I have had several opportunities to translate everything from city trail surveys to Central American family court documents, and I often use Google Translate to help with the process.
Google Translate is nowhere near good enough to take court documentation, let alone simple survey responses, and translate them into perfect English. Mistakes in survey responses are unfortunate but not disastrous. On the other hand, small changes in the wording of legal documents can have a lasting negative impact. Therefore, I have also had to use SpanishDict, Word Reference, an old-school translation dictionary and the expertise of the bilingual staff at El Centro to produce a translated text.
Even if machine translators become nearly flawless and replace the need for human translators, they will not be able to replace the need for human interpreters who must understand the cultural context behind what is being communicated.
Many languages contain regional dialects that can change the meanings of entire words depending on the area that a person is in. Spanish has so many regional dialects that two guys even created a viral eight minute song about it. A literal word-to-word translation of their creation would be impossible without cultural understanding.
Foreign language classes should be taught with an emphasis on cultural context instead of simple vocabulary memorization. While many assignments in language classes prohibit the use of machine translators, they are part of the real world and here to stay. Instead, foreign language classes need to teach students the skills that machines cannot perform.
Cross-cultural communication is one of these. Translators may help someone know how to communicate with a speaker of a different language, but cross-cultural communication is all about giving the speaker an idea about what to communicate. What are the challenges of a given culture? What is their history? What are some slang terms unique to their community?
Additionally, foreign language courses should challenge students to find ways to actually interact in their target language outside of class. Google Translate does no good if someone is never exposed to environments with foreign languages. That’s where foreign language and culture classes — emphasis on the culture — come into play.
If a student can cheat on a foreign language assignment, it is not a good assignment. A graded conversation about problems facing another culture’s community, however, can not be replaced by Google Translate, which is instead the type of learning that should be taking place in the classroom. Chances are, I will not be writing many literary analysis essays in Spanish once I’m done with my classes. On the other hand, I do hope to be able to conduct interviews in Spanish and understand the challenges of communities other than my own as America becomes more diverse.
One day, artificial intelligence may be able to take this article and translate it into flawless Silbo Gomero, a whistling language spoken by 20,000 people on one of the Canary Islands. However, that will never replace the human interaction and communication that could come from learning about their culture.
As translators continue to improve, learning the basic vocabulary and grammar structure of other languages may seem pointless. However, the ability to communicate with another culture will never become obsolete.
Brian Beach is a freshman journalism major. Reach him at email@example.com.