I’m getting pretty excited about language learning, lately, which has probably been obvious. There are moments, though, when I feel doubts.
Do I really need to learn these languages? Google translate is already pretty amazing at translating between many languages, and it will only get better. Maybe in a few years we’ll all be wearing Google glasses that will instantaneously translate for us any text we see and any phrases uttered within earshot.
It’s a lot of work to learn a language, and technology is bringing us to a point where, even though it’s never been so convenient to learn new languages, it’s also never seemed so strongly as if knowing many languages might not be useful for long.
We’ll doubtless be told that language learning is good for the brain, but that assurance only carries us so far.
There are plenty of other things we could learn that would be good for the brain but also useful. If we think language learning is useless, it won’t be enough to say that it’s one of many things that can be used for mental exercise.
So then we’re left with the question: is it still useful to learn languages, even with Google translate getting to be so unbelievably good?
Probably not, for most things. Let’s be honest. For most purposes, Google translate (and its cousins) is now, or soon will be, good enough.
But there’s at least one big exception that comes to mind for me immediately. For the task of thinking with the great minds of history, I think we still need at least a rudimentary knowledge of a handful of languages, and the more fluent we can become, the better.
This is because we will never see the text as clearly through a translation as we will through the original. It doesn’t matter how good the translation is, or how it is presented. We can’t really understand the subtleties and possibilities of the text without some comprehension of the language.
It’s a little like examining an object though a video feed, I think. No matter how crisp the pixelation, or how bright, no matter how many different angles we get to see the thing from, it will never be quite as good as holding it on our own two hands and peering at it through our own eyes.
No matter how good the translation is, it will never be as good as reading the original.
Without being able to read in the original language, we will never be as sure that we understand what we’re reading as we could be.
Without reading the original, we’ll never be able to speak as confidently about it as we wish we could.