Will the machine help us learn – or will we learn to use the machine?

Last year, I followed a MOOC called ‘Education and Digital Culture’. I deliberately came to the MOOC with Marco Polo Project glasses on, and in the end, one core question about the future emerged: will we develop better systems for learning languages, or will we develop better translation systems.

At the moment, both are growing in parallel through the power of the web.

On the language learning front, the following is happening:

  • Traditional teaching methods are adapted and circulated online: podcast series offer a full language curriculum,  tutors are available through skype, and Language teachers share their wisdom through blogs (like Olle Linge’s Hacking Chinese).
  • Companies are developing more ergonomic language learning tools online – all-inclusive training apps like duolingo, or more focused vocabulary building apps like skritter.
  • Collaborative platforms facilitate peer-to-peer learning – foremost among them Lang-8, which organises a multi-lingual community of amateur bloggers correcting each other.

Meanwhile, we can observe similar developments in the translation space, :

  • Dictionaries are available online or as apps – in Chinese, MDBG and pleco come to mind.
  • Translator forums, such as Proz, offer peer-to-peer support on difficult constructions.
  • Google translate and other companies are developing automatic translators.

Learning a language online – whether assisted by online curriculums, apps, or forums, will still require effort and time from the learner. Online dictionaries and translation forums also reduce the time needed to translate, but still imply effort. Automatic translators, however, differ in quality. The dream beyond automatic translators is to go ‘beyond babel’, allowing direct communication between people speaking different languages, and by-passing the need for language learning altogether.

So what future are we heading towards? Wwith better training, translation tools may not be so necessary? But with translation tools, language training may not be so useful either. Or will we need trainers to use these automatic translators? At present, google translate is improving, but complexities still require interpretation, testing, rephrasing. Teachers will help new humans master the machine that overcomes the language barrier.

Both scenarios hover between a utopian vision of a post-babel super-humanity to more dystopian visions of the future. On the one hand, a ‘mental athleticism’, or cognitive hyper-competition, where if you stop studying, more languages, faster, with better tools – you fall behind. On the other hand a ‘technical-only’ education that forgets about the beauties of idleness in the name of efficiency, or an education losing the wisdom and choice. Maybe, too, the division between a privileged class of overeducateds wired-in ergonomists at increasing distance from under-privileged undereducated people.

That uncertainty about the future of automatic translators and language learning tools also has political implications: if we’re on the verge of developing efficient translation tools, then why invest time in learning foreign languages – there’s better things we can do with our children’s time and our education money. Conversely, if better tools are coming, we should make sure we adopt them early, and train our people for a future where multilingualism will be a basic form of literacy.

We can’t predict what will happen, but we should be well aware of these tensions, and that no scenario, in the present, is at all certain.

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