Do We Need To Learn Other Languages When Tech Can Do The Work For Us?

As technologists get closer to a product that can translate conversations in real-time, ten daily examines just how much could be lost in translation.

For a country that prides itself on shortening its own name to Straya, and with abbreviations rife in our vernacular (think footy, biccy and cuppa), is it really surprising that we’re pretty lazy when it comes to learning foreign languages?

The percentage of students studying a foreign language in Year 12 has decreased from 40 percent in 1960 to around 10 percent in 2016 -- and this includes native speakers.

In the 2016 Census, 72 percent of residents reported speaking only English at home, down from nearly 77 percent in 2011.

And despite Labor renewing its policy pledge to boost Asian languages on Thursday, one leading linguistic is pessimistic about its impact.

“It’s easy to be complacent because so many people around the globe speak English,” Australian Linguistic Society President Ilana Mushin said.

She recalled having meetings recently Germany and China, where everyone defaulted to English speaking.

"It is gob-smacking to us at our university that only a handful of students are studying Indonesian and they are our closest neighbour to the north and a big trading partner," she said, referring to the University of Queensland where she also works as an Associate Professor.

Can Technology Just Do The Work For Us?

There are two leading products in the artificial intelligence translation space. Both Google’s Pixel Earbuds and Waverly Lab Pilots were released late last  year.

Google Earbuds and Waverly Labs Pilots. (Image: Supplied)

Waverly Labs is a 20-person Brooklyn-based company that specialises in real-time translation through a pair of Bluetooth earbuds. They have big ambitions, but are still grappling with the bulky size of the product and a delay in the translation -- which is currently not real-time.

The earbuds aren’t tethered together and are meant be. When you need help  translating, you can hand the other bud to someone and have them sync it up with the own phone

The tech start up concedes, “We have a lot more work to do, but now is the time to get the Pilot in your ears” in order to get consumer feedback.

Tech behemoth Google haven’t hit the linguistic spot with its Pixel Earbud. The Guardian saw the “flawed” earbuds as “a missed opportunity.” Gizmodo said “it’s not even close to being good.”

Business And Human Touch Get Overlooked

Even if AI engineers make considerable improvements in technology lead multi-linguistic technology, Mushin says it will always miss certain marks.

"There are huge cognitive benefits when you learn another language. It's similar to learning music. And you don't even need to be fluent in it to get these benefits," she told ten daily.

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As a practical aid for a tourist, she said it would be a huge help but it is, "Not going capture nuances of languages that can only be done with human interaction."

“It adds value if you understand how politeness works and the language used in jokes. Also metaphorical and figurative language like 'I'm going to knock your socks off' -- how would that work in Mandarin?"

"Asia is home to the fastest growing middle class on earth," Plibersek said.  (Image: Getty)

Mushin also says that cross-cultural competence in a global society is so important.

And this is the line the Opposition is towing.

Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek has promised to inject $32 million in to policies aimed towards taking advantage of a burgeoning Asian middle class.

If Labor wins the election they will roll out intensive training for 5000 principals and senior teachers, improving Asian language curriculum material from pre-school to Year 12, and a whole-of-government audit of Australian and state government literacy and language education policies.

"Asia is home to the fastest growing middle class on earth," Plibersek said.

"And Australia is right on its doorstep. The jobs of the future are in our region. Nine out of ten of the next billion people in the middle class live in our region.”

The policy would also see additional online teaching resources created for Hindi -- one of the most widely-spoken languages in India.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.auFeatured image: Getty Images