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What does the future hold for language learning?

October 10, 2009

I’ve been thinking about this a bit recently and it has started to worry me. What does the future hold for aspiring polyglots, language teachers, and professional translators/interpreters? Because currently those are my three current job goals and hobbies! Will knowing multiple languages become obsolete by the time I’m ready to enter the job market? Will knowing multiple languages become “pointless” in the real world?

Here is a quote from a thread on How to learn any Language‘s forum in a thread called “Your language history – 5 years from now” where users are supposed to write as if they were five years in the future recollecting on their language learning achievements during the past five years. This was written by the poster Iversen and got me thinking about this topic:

[…] Google will in five years time be able to deliver much better translations than me in almost any conceivable language combination, I will have bought a gadget that can speak any language better than me and write 5 versions of simplified Chinese, my TV set will only be sending programs in English (because everything can be translated on the fly) and no Danish politician worth her salt will waste her time on learning anything but Danish and English. And in 20 years more you can drop the requirement of being able to speak Danish.

This is a little unsettling, to me at least. Maybe a lot of people would prefer this? The simpler the better, right? One Universal language (most likely English) so we can just forget all about the other ones and not have to worry about bringing the phrasebook along in your travel bag or that annoying mandatory high school language course, hm?

When I was taking the German class last month we were talking about the future, and one of the topics was whether or not one would need to learn a foreign language to live in or travel to a new country, and if not, would this be a good or bad thing?

I was of course saying that no of course this wouldn’t be a good thing, languages are very important to make the world an interesting place with different cultures, it’s a fun challenge, it’s my hobby, it makes Europe really cool etc. etc. while one of my classmates just said “but it would be so much easier!” True, but at what cost?

I’m not sure how many people are out there reading this (wordpress tells me about 13 a day? yay! thanks for visiting!) but if you have any commentary on this, please feel free to write a little something in the comments of this post because I am interested in what other language learners and enthusiasts envision for the future.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2009 1:57 pm

    I have actually wondered about the same thing in the past as well.

    Looking realistically, I admit that it seems that things like automatic translation will take over a lot of language learning. On the other hand, contact between continents and people should increase so I think people will at least be able to speak one “lingua franca” fluently because there won’t be any way to get away from that in times of globalization. Also it might be that because people will not be able to make an agreement on such a lingua franca (i.e. the Europeans would never want to learn Chinese and the Chinese have a hard time learning English anyway), it might be that different regions would have different “lingua francas” so there would be a few.

    This all doesn’t really leave much room for little languages, though. I think there will be less and less need to learn them so their influence will decrease a lot with time. There will probably always be people who learn languages because that’s fun but, you know, there will be less and less because 1) there will be no other incentive but fun 2) those learning it for fun will get less exposure to the language because of having less ability to speak it.

    I don’t think this will happen in our lifetime, though, so you can more or less feel safe about your profession. :L

  2. October 15, 2009 9:20 pm

    The idea of different areas having different “lingua francas” is interesting. I think that is very likely to happen in the future, and probably before anything like a robot translating machine that you hold in front of your mouth while speaking to people that speak different languages exists!

    That is what I was thinking about, that vicious cycle of less people taking an interest in learning languages for fun, thus less people speaking different languages, thus less resources for people who want to learn languages for fun, etc. but I also think that this is unlikely to happen in our lifetime. 🙂

  3. October 22, 2009 1:59 pm

    I think it would be terrible if other languages started dying out because no one could any longer see any point in knowing them. I really hope this doesn’t happen but I think it might eventually.
    I am a computer programmer (not that that means I know all about this) and I think automatic translation being as good as human translation is still a long way off. I would say more like 50 years instead of 5 years but it probably will happen eventually.
    I think since the dawn of history, a universal language was always going to emerge at some point. This may now be happening with English, although languages are also very strong. I think the fact that English has taken an early hold on the internet may help it.
    But as I say, I, like you would hate to see languages dying out because of this.
    Fingers crossed.

    • November 17, 2009 3:00 pm

      Well I guess I will take advantage of probably being part of the last generation who “needs” to learn foreign languages. 😉

  4. November 14, 2009 9:52 pm

    Endangered languages should not fear technology itself but rather its misuse. In that I mean that technology can have enormous benefits for minority languages. It is all a question of power. Speakers of the Celtic languages (and other minority language in Europe) have been somewhat successful in utilising technology to promote and spread the use of their languages. In the case of Irish a whole new spread of Irish-languagae communities have sprung up the last decade as a result of the Internet (blogging, podcasting, internet TV, internet radio, websites, forums, Skype, IMing)…The future can only be brighter for small languages. Their speakers just need to make the technology work for THEM.

  5. November 17, 2009 3:00 pm

    “Their speakers just need to make the technology work for THEM.”

    I totally agree with this and that is why I made my program to help people easily spread their language knowledge to others. I am extremely pleased that this has actually happened with a Manx speaker using my app to make these Manx lessons and spread his knowledge:
    So with the efforts of just one Manx speaker, there is now another good FREE Manx course available to everyone.

    I do fear for the future of minority languages but I certainly haven’t given up hope 😉

    • November 17, 2009 3:02 pm

      That’s great that you have been able to help set up a resource for speakers of a minority language to use technology to help support their language! I actually haven’t been to your website yet but I will check it out now! Keep up the good work!

  6. sommervogel permalink
    November 17, 2009 3:11 pm

    Agreed with Corcaighist about use of technology for minority languages.

    I also think that a great deal of languages will die out during the next decennia (sadly), but I think it’s very unlikely that the whole world will speak ONE language at some point, because a) there are many groups who cling to their language because it is a part of their identity and b) even if everybody spoke English there would be many varieties that would grow apart again, becoming unintellegible. Of course, that would still mean a LOT less diversity.

    As for “usefulness”, of course it would be more “economic” if everybody spoke the same language, but so much cultural knowledge and knowledge about human history would get lost, not to speak of losing the possibility to continue research on linguistic universals, language history etc. (An interesting read on what we lose when we lose language diversity is “Dying Words” by Nicholas Evans, just finished it.)

    But I guess you don’t need to worry about job possibilities that soon. (Not because of language death or technology anyway, rather because there are too many people who want to work in that field!)

    Nice blog, I’ll keep visiting! 🙂 (Found you on Unilang, I’m linguaholic.)

    • November 17, 2009 8:08 pm

      I think that one of the main issues in the future will be the cultural richness and importance of multilingualism versus the ease of having one lingua franca, and I’m not sure what will win. It would be nice if there would be both a lingua franca and local languages, I think. I’m still not entirely sure what I think on the subject, but as a language enthusiast I don’t want languages to die!

      Thanks for visiting my blog! You’re in charge of the secret santa at Unilang, right? 🙂

    • November 17, 2009 8:15 pm

      I love the idea that you have for your blog! Are you still keeping it up? I was wondering since the last post seems to be from September. I really think it’s a great idea! 🙂

  7. November 19, 2009 4:53 pm

    Yes, I’m doing the Secret Santa thing. 🙂

    Thanks, yes, the favourite words project is still running, buut I haven’t put too much energy into promoting it lately (also because I’m a bit hesistant to post my address all over the web and don’t really have the money for a po box) so I haven’t gotten any word cards lately. Feel free to send one if you like to! 😀

    • November 21, 2009 1:39 pm

      Yeah I can understand the hesitance to be posting your address all over the internet!
      I may just send one! I need to think of a word first though! 🙂

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