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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Why Tech Won’t Mean the End of Language Teaching.

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ISC Language Teaching Workshop Spring 20” (CC BY 2.0) by Jirka Matousek

There’s no doubt that technology is affecting all of our lives. Not only that, but it’s also making many of the ways that we used to rely on for communication obsolete. To give just three examples, public phone boxes, fax machines, and letters have been superseded by mobiles, emails, and texts respectively.

Now there’s also the question of whether, in this day and age, there’s a real need to learn a foreign language when technology offers almost instant communication in any language that we want. So let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages that this might bring, as well as the likelihood of it actually coming to pass.

Obviously, it would be bad news for all those experienced experts at teaching written and conversational English if they were to find themselves replaced by an app or computer program. But, of all the forms of language learning, this would be the one that is the hardest to replace. That’s because there is nothing quite as effective as learning face to face, or at least via the internet, with someone who can help you learn good, idiomatic English, This is one example of when you can use technology to speak to native speakers across the world.

So this, in turn, would be another disadvantage if all language learning was left to the same sort of technology that allows Amazon’s Alexa to perform ever-more complex tasks around the home. Yes, you can learn specific words and phrases, but any more complex communication would be hard to pick up. It’s not like you’ll ever be able to hold a full conversation with Alexa, and neither would Alexa be able to teach you the basics of speaking a different language.

One very important element of using tech for language teaching will be the implementation of artificial intelligence. Although this has come on by leaps and bounds over the last few years, it still falls quite a way short of being able to replicate the subtleties and nuances of the spoken word.

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So it might come in useful for performing functions like helping cars to drive and stop themselves, but until it becomes considerably more sophisticated, it will not be able to exactly replicate human communication. For example, even the most sophisticated automated answering services in use today are almost instantly identifiable as being machine-generated. Yes, they manage to express a specific message but it can’t yet be confused with a normal interaction.

Google Translate” (CC BY 2.0) by jonrussell

Then there’s the question of over-reliance on technology. Just as many people have lost the skill of physically searching for information, preferring to rely on Google instead, this leaves us hostage to the tech. So what happens when there’s no PC or mobile device handy? There’s the risk of being left literally speechless. But if we are prepared to take a little and make a little effort to learn even a few words and phrases in a foreign language, it’s a situation that will never arise.

But, most of all, there is a great deal more to learning a language than just being able to translate the words. What technology will never be able to do is immerse you in the culture of a particular country quite like teaching can, whether that is being able to read the literature or understand the most popular movies and TV shows.

So while Google Translate may be a useful tool, it looks like those language teachers’ jobs are safe, for the moment at least!

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