Google’s translation headphones: you can order a meal but they won’t help you understand the culture

Automatic translation doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from learning languages. Pathdoc via Shutterstock.com

Language learning will be vital for the future of the UK economy in a post Brexit world. This is in part why employers are desperately looking for graduates with language skills – and, more importantly, intercultural awareness and empathy.

According to a CBI Pearson Education Survey 58% of employers are dissatisfied with school leavers’ language skills. The survey also found that 55% of employers would like to see improvements in students’ intercultural awareness.

Similarly, the British Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 Survey of International Trade states that a large majority of non-exporters cite language and cultural factors as barriers to success.

It may sound like good news then that Google has just released an AI-powered translation earbud, with claims it will instantly translate between 40 different languages using a Pixel smartphone.

A wireless connection to the ear buds allows the user to translate to and from different languages in real time. In the live demo Google showed how the ear bud can translate short phrases –one of the major benefits is said to be: “now you can order your meals like a pro”. In Google’s imagination their software increases intercultural communication and gets rid of language barriers. So will this spell the end of language learning as we know it? Probably not.

Lost in translation

While Google’s Pixel Bud is likely to work well on short phrases such as: “Hello, how are you?”, try idioms like “a hot potato”, “a penny for your thoughts”, or “to add insult to injury” and you’ll find it becomes more difficult for the software to translate it in a meaningful way.

And then there’s the real killer for any translation from English: the phrasal verb. This is a verb followed by a preposition that changes the meaning of the verb. Let’s take “to make” – a common phrasal verb is “to make up” as in “invent” or in “be reconciled after a quarrel” (“they kissed and made up”). In the Spanish translation it translates as: “they kissed and invented” and in the German one it’s: “they kissed and left” – both wrong.

But what about Chinese I hear you ask? Quite. When I was in Hong Kong in September to teach at a partner university, I felt unusually foreign. Not because I’m European, but because I couldn’t talk to the taxi driver and ask him about local politics – one of my favourite pastimes on foreign shores. I couldn’t even tell him where I had to go, I showed him a piece of paper with the university’s name in Chinese. In those limited circumstances the Pixel bud could be useful. I might even try it next time I’m in Hong Kong.

The joy of language

What this all comes down to is that language learning is about so much more than just being able to order your dinner like a pro. Because ultimately the beauty of human communication and usefulness of language learning is to walk in somebody else’s shoes.

Research has shown that what we think about the world around us, takes shape in language. By learning modern languages we see the world through a different prism – differently beautiful and enriching to our own development.

Learning another language can help you see the world differently. Shutterstock

When I teach my students I equip them with a tool kit of intercultural proficiency. The most helpful model of intercultural competence has been developed by Darla Deardorff, a research scholar in intercultural education. Deardorff identified a number of elements that help with the process, which include having an open-minded attitude and respect for otherness, as well as deep cultural knowledge and linguistic skills. This then in turn leads to improved intercultural competence and means the individual becomes better at relating to a different culture.

You might argue that you don’t have to speak other languages to be open-minded, but Deardorff’s model clearly suggests that cultural knowledge and linguistic skills certainly get you there much more quickly and at a deeper level of understanding. So if Britain does want to be open for business in a post-Brexit world, being able to speak the languages of our business partners and understand their cultures is going to be vital.

In this way, the ability to manage cultural perceptions in a nonjudgmental way is the x-factor in international relations – be it for business or diplomacy. In other words, if you want world peace, you need to get beyond ordering your food like a pro.

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