Easy translation: a double-edged sword?

Google Translate word lens feature

Image source: Google

Big news from Google Translate: you can now point your smartphone camera at French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, or Spanish text — and immediately get an English translation. (Thanks to Danielle Villegas — @TechCommGeekMom — for pointing me to the original article by Pete Pachal on Mashable.)

As Pachal writes, “Star Trek‘s universal translator is here, and it’s on your phone.”

It’s very cool, and incredibly useful.

However, as someone who used a slide rule before pocket calculators came into vogue, I have a question.

Just as calculators (and then personal computers) eroded people’s skill at doing long division, will easy translation software make people less likely to learn foreign languages? If I can navigate around Lisbon or Moscow using my smartphone, will I bother to learn anything at all of Portuguese or Russian?

And if that’s true, won’t something be lost? After all, learning a language is more than just learning vocabulary and syntax. It’s gaining a bit of insight into the culture that produced the language, and it’s opening up a way for me to connect with people in that culture.

So, hooray for easy translation software. In the short run it’ll certainly make our lives easier. But will it prove to be a double-edged sword?

Tell me what you think in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Easy translation: a double-edged sword?

  1. TechCommGeekMom

    Hi Larry, I think you make a very good point in things being “lost in translation”–literally and figuratively! This is something that still needs to be fine-tuned, with any translation tool that I’ve ever encountered. I already feel like there’s less emphasis on learning a second language from the time when I was a kid. I know in my local school district, they do start the basics with the kids in 4th grade, and do offer many languages through the high school. My son, however, goes to a special needs school, and foreign language isn’t introduced until high school, simply due to graduation requirments, and he has limited choices in what he can take (I think it’s either Spanish, or Spanish, if you catch my drift.) He wants to learn Italian, even though Spanish would be more practical since his father’s first language is Spanish and many of his relatives only speak Spanish, including his grandfather. But you do raise a good question–will people learn new languages, and if not, is that a bad thing? Only time will tell. I have no problem being without a slide rule, after all.

  2. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks, Danielle. You’re right: only time will tell. It’s interesting that you’re already seeing the pendulum swinging away from teaching languages to children. I was a bit surprised to hear that.

  3. Kaylin Tristano (@theleastshrew)

    I think it sounds like a fabulous tool to use in a pinch, but its immediate use strikes me as something that American tourists will use to alienate and aggravate the locals even more than we already do. I can just imagine it being used in a fancy French restaurant – “hang on, I haven’t bothered to learn any of your language, so can you please speak into my phone and then read the screen to get my order?”

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Ah, the Ugly American! While not all of us Americans are ugly, a few certainly are. I guess it remains to be seen Whether the new tools will make them uglier – or whether it’s even possible for them to be any uglier than they already are.

  4. Mark Baker

    I think skills are always lost when technology changes, and that certainly affects our culture and our patterns of thought. At the same time, this is how we got to the point of having a culture. Fire and the wheel replaced old skills with new ones. The plow, the water wheel, and the steam engine all made old “skilled trades” obsolete. Did we lose something each time? Perhaps.

    Would we want it back?

    Probably not.

    We are creatures of limited capacity, but with a unique gift for extending our capacity through machines. Every time we transfer capacity from our hands and brains to machines, we free up some of our own capacity for other endeavors, enabling us to become wiser and healthier and more prosperous.

    If there is loss, there is, on balance, more gained than was lost.


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