learning languages

The media has started proclaiming the end of the linguistic world as we know it. Technologies are advancing so rapidly that it seems like translators will soon be replaced by robots. The title of one of the articles published in Newsweek even reads, “Why It’s Not Worth Learning Foreign Languages.

“If you’re just starting to learn a foreign language simply to be able to communicate in it – stop! It’s simply a waste of time,” says Prof. Dr. Janusz Jemielniak, the author of the article. Google Translate can already handle text translations today, and investments in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics offer hope that the quality of automatic translations will significantly improve in the coming years.

So, will people stop learning languages altogether?

Do you remember what you dreamed of when you were eight or nine years old? 

When I was that age, the times of the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) were coming to an end. I still remember standing in line at the store when they had just stopped selling pasta. Since only one package was allowed per person, my grandmother gathered all her grandchildren so that we could buy extra packages. 

Childhood is also a time of dreams and plans. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to travel, see new countries, and continents. I watched episodes of the “Pepper and Vanilla” program hosted by the unforgettable Tony Halik and Elżbieta Dzikowska with excitement. Also, I eagerly awaited the “With a Camera Among Animals” program, in which the Gucwiński couple talked about the lives of animals from distant countries. Many days, I spent long hours with maps, drawing flags, and reading about places that seemed inaccessible. They really were — obtaining a passport in those days seemed nearly impossible.”

When the political system changed in Poland, and Coca-Cola, Hubba Bubba gum, and tropical fruits appeared in stores, the world’s borders also opened up. However, this didn’t change my situation for the better. My parents weren’t among those who succeeded during the early days of capitalism. We led a regular, everyday life, but we couldn’t afford trips abroad.

In high school, I was one of the last people who had never traveled outside of Poland. I didn’t have a passport, and trips to other countries remained a dream. As a result, I felt somewhat inferior because of it. Ultimately, I came from a smaller town, hadn’t seen much, and my English didn’t sound as “American” as my friends’.

Languages gave me a glimpse of travel, though. When I read a text about London during English class, I imagined myself standing in front of Big Ben, with red double-decker buses passing by. I also started learning French to taste crème brûlée in a Parisian café. When friends asked me why I was learning languages, I always replied:

“Languages allow me to travel to new places.”

When I was learning a language, I felt that the country where it was spoken became closer to me. When I heard familiar words on the street, I immediately felt a connection to the people speaking that language. It didn’t matter whether they were from France, Spain, Egypt, or India.

Language knowledge helped me break down many barriers and overcome my own weaknesses. Although I may feel more introverted here in Poland, when I’m in Brazil, I can start conversations with strangers in a store or on the street.

So, can computers completely replace language learning and change the way we communicate?

I think we will continue to learn languages for two important reasons:

1. Communication is not just language

While computers will certainly facilitate translations, they cannot make us truly understand each other. Language is just the tip of the iceberg here. Full understanding requires going deeper, delving into our minds, our past, and experiences.

To be certain that the right message has reached us, we must grasp this “mental programming,” as Geert Hofstede, a Dutch expert in intercultural communication, calls it. When we hear the word “yes,” it doesn’t always mean agreement (if you’ve ever worked with people from Asia, you know what I mean). These are things we learn when we have contact with other cultures, and nothing ensures this better than learning the language.

Translations are also unable to fully convey wordplay and hidden humor. Many words are difficult to translate into another language because they carry a multitude of ideas that we may not be aware of if we don’t speak that language. Take the Italian expression “la dolce vita”, for example. It can be literally translated as “the sweet life”. But when we say “la dolce vita”, maybe we envision having gelato on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, with music by Andrea Bocelli playing in the background? Or maybe jumping into the Trevi fountain in Rome?

Of course, if someone is learning English just to be able to order a beer and some food, computers and automatic translators will suffice. But most people of this kind are not learning languages today, even if they are forced to attend English or German classes.

2. Learning languages develops the brain

Many scientific studies have indicated that bilingual or multilingual individuals are often more intelligent than those who know only one language. Because their brains function well thanks to their knowledge of languages, the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is also reduced for them.

Several years ago, I even taught French to an elderly lady who mentioned that she had enrolled in the course because she wanted to exercise her memory. Her memory had started to fail her. Given she had liked this language since her high school days, which she attended in the pre-war era, she thought that returning to her old passion would bring her more pleasure than doing boring memory exercises.

Learning languages just pays off, similar to learning mathematics, which teaches us logical thinking. Even if computers have made it unnecessary for us to remember multiplication tables and store clerks no longer need to know how to quickly calculate the change due, mathematics in schools is still necessary. The same will be true for languages.

Should we fear change?

No. Let’s embrace technology as something good, but let’s remember that it should be a tool. Let’s not completely subordinate ourselves to it. Some time ago, people were afraid of television and computers. But thanks to them, knowledge is at our fingertips. We have contact with other people and cultures, which makes us start looking at what is important in life a little differently.

My great-grandmother was in a huge shock when she saw an Indian cyclist in a turban riding at the end of the peloton in the Peace Race for the first time. Today, I am writing this article in my in-laws’ home on the outskirts of Delhi. Technology has made the world smaller, but whether we get closer or farther apart as a result depends solely on us.

Article originally published at sekretypoliglotow.pl in Polish. You can find it here.

Konrad Jerzak vel Dobosz

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