Saturday, 18 December 2010

Another excuse not to learn the language - or, why I am a luddite when it comes to electronic translation.

Saw this wonderful new real-time translator on Andrew Sullivan's blog:

As much of a technical marvel as this undoubtedly is, I can't help but feel that technology is fast developing to the point where people can travel internationally without ever bothering to learn the language of the countries they visit.

I have already met more than one person whose way of getting by in foreign countries is to use electronic dictionaries for day-to-day communication without even bothering to learn the basic elements of the language of the country they live in. Some of these people had been in the same foreign country for as much as eight or more years without even learning the words for "good morning". Now such individuals will have even less reason to learn the language of the country they live in.

This is not mere snobbery of the "Check out how good my Chinese/French/German/Japanese/Polish is" that expats often engage in. When people visit any country they, and the societies they come from, are judged by the degree to which they are willing to integrate into the societies which they visit. This is true to a certain extent in Japan and China, and to a much greater extent in countries where people practically refuse to speak foreign languages on home soil like the US and the UK.

Electronic devices are useful for short trips, or the translation of a language which it is not reasonable to be expected to understand. Working in patenting I have often had to deal with foreign-language documents in an assortment of languages from Tagalog to Russian in relation to a single case. However, they are no replacement for learning the language of a country when you have committed to live there long-term - both in terms of the deeper understanding of the language that a thinking, feeling human being is capable of, and in terms of the cultural knowledge which is gained at the same time as learning the language.

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