I’m an uprooted cosmopolitan, so we’re moving the family to Spain for a year. The children are leaving. Growing up with English-speaking parents in Paris, they speak both French and English, and once you know one Romance language, learning another is a breeze. “Lexical similarity” is the measure of overlap between sets of words from different languages; the lexical similarity between French and Spanish is about 0.75 (where 1 means identical).
I want children to have such good Spanish that they can say everything, understand everything, have deep friendships and be fully themselves in the language for life. That’s what counts, not perfect grammar.
But despite all my emotional commitment to multilingualism, I know its usefulness has diminished. How should we think about language learning in the age of global English and machine translation?
I spent an extremely rewarding decade learning German. Yet I continue to meet younger Germans who insist on speaking their practically native English to me. This is true across Europe: around 98% of pupils in primary and secondary schools in the EU learn English.
Meanwhile, machine translation is catching up with mankind. I have had successful email exchanges with Spaniards putting my text into English via Google Translate. It’s flawed, but still much better than my Spanish.
The usefulness of language learning will only diminish. Already, many publications around the world are now translating some of their articles into English. In five years, Le Monde and the Chinese daily Jiefang Daily could write 20 articles a day thanks to machine translation, hire underpaid young English speakers to polish them and, presto, they will be world newspapers.
Corollary to all this: learning a language badly becomes useless. In my generation, people spent years in high school racking their brains over French or German grammar. Most came out able to order beers and maybe read a basic news story. I suspect they would have had a more rewarding experience spending that time studying medicine, history, or statistics. Language teachers won’t agree, but they would, wouldn’t they? They have jobs to protect.
I am also skeptical of translators who insist that they can never be replaced by a machine. Granted, machine translation is often flawed, machines can’t (yet) communicate through body language or eye contact, and some algorithms are sexist. For example, in genderless languages such as Turkish, today’s algorithms tend to assume that an engineer is “he”.
But most human translators are also flawed. One man did such a poor job translating a German text into English for publication in the FT that I spent an afternoon rewriting it. Additionally, humans can produce sexist language without the help of machines, and their algorithms are harder to tune. In short, rather than spending years learning bad German, just install a translation app on your phone.
If you’re learning a language, aim for excellence. If you have children, immerse them from birth. Wall Streeters sending their kids to Mandarin-speaking preschools may be hilarious, but they choose the most efficient route.
I am still struggling with the issue of English speakers learning foreign languages. Here, the utilitarian argument is the weakest of all. If the world language is your mother tongue, your brutal interest is to force foreign interlocutors into your own territory. And English speakers don’t have the easy language gains that French speakers have, because no major foreign language is particularly close to English.
I presented these questions to Mark Dingemanse, a linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He agreed, up to a point, on the weakening of the utilitarian case of languages. Dingemanse is a gifted linguist who speaks a Germanic language and lives 10 km from the German border, but even he often finds himself speaking English to Germans.
For other languages, it sometimes uses machine translation. “I think everyone does,” he says. Yet, he points out, humans can do something machines can’t: ask themselves for clarification. We do this constantly in conversation: “Really? Are you sure? What do you mean?” He fears that machine translation will dilute our responsibility for what we say.
But he cautions me against emphasizing the utilitarian value of languages. Multilingualism, he says, is the standard human condition. Most people living today speak several languages. It shapes who they are. In the Ghanaian village that Dingemanse studies, people use different languages for different registers: English for some uses, different Ghanaian for others. Each language has its own domain.
He asks me, “How would you feel if you suddenly became monolingual?” I shiver: I would feel diminished as a human.
He explains why: a multilingual person can be several people, inhabiting several worlds. “The thrill of mastering different languages is something that humanity will never lose,” he says. “As linguist Nick Evans wrote, we study other languages because we can’t live enough lives. It is a multiplier of our lives.
Enrichment, emphasizes Dingemanse, “is not only economic or utilitarian”. He’s right, but it’s better to know that before you start.
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Letters in response to this column:
It’s not just the English who mutilate foreign words / By Natasha Pittet, Biel, Switzerland
Original language books beat machine translations / By Ursula Gilbert, Cabrieres-d’Avignon, Provence, France
Lexical similarities of English and Scottish / By Lorren Eldridge, Oxford, Oxfordshire, UK
Achieving excellence in a language doesn’t have to be daunting / By Andrew Stokes, Managing Director, ClarityEnglish, Hong Kong
Polyglot reflected his multilingual empire / De Gonçalo Cabral, Macau
Learning a language is not always a choice / By Elisabeth Barakos, Hamburg, Germany