Is AI about to end the need to learn foreign languages?

Anywhere you go, any language you want – you can speak it. This is what is promised by AI assistants in your pocket. Artificial intelligence already transformed how translators work. Is it about to make learning a foreign language obsolete? — Photo: Christin Klose/dpa

BERLIN: When the protagonist in the British cult sci-fi novel "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" sticks a creature called a Babel fish in his ear, it translates all alien speech for him. Can artificial intelligence (AI) give us something similar?

Thanks to advances in machine learning, says linguist Anatol Stefanowitsch, a professor at the Freie Universität Berlin, we already have simultaneous speech translation systems that could make the arduous work of learning a foreign language obsolete.

Computer-based speech recognition and translation have become good enough for many everyday purposes, he points out, and modern smartphones often have a speech translator app installed on them.

The goal is machine translation of speech in real time, ie. with as little delay as possible. The technological prerequisites for this now exist, notes the Goethe-Institut. Experts at the German cultural association, which promotes cultural exchange and study of the German language abroad, distinguish between translating one language into another and foreign language proficiency, the latter going "far beyond simple simultaneous translation."

Just a few years ago, it seemed like magic when your smartphone displayed the translated text of a menu you photographed with its camera. Today there are real-time speech-to-text apps that can help you break down language barriers – albeit with some time lag in the dialogues.

Samsung, in close collaboration with Google, has gone further with its new Galaxy S24 series. If, say, you're in a foreign country, don't know the language and want to make a restaurant reservation, the Live translate feature will not only display a translation of your call but also make it audible using a computer-generated voice. Here, too, there's some time lag between the spoken and translated word.

Other limitations can include difficulty extracting the desired speaker's speech from background speech/noise. And while translation accuracy has improved over the years, complex sentences, language nuances, idiomatic expressions and the like often present problems. Verbatim translations of "a piece of cake" for something easy or being "under the weather" for feeling unwell, for example, will make no sense to a foreign interlocutor.

The more that speech translation apps are asked to do, "the more likely they still are to fail," says Stefanowitsch, but adds: "Speech recognition and translation are areas where further giant strides by machine learning can be expected."

The Goethe-Institut sees foreign language learning on the cusp of profound change spurred by rapid development of AI models such as ChatGPT, which generates human-like text and whose applications include language translation. They will "transform the learning process as well as the way we communicate," it says.

Will it make any sense at all to learn a foreign language in this brave new world of AI? Stefanowitsch says yes. "I definitely think it's valuable," he remarks, explaining that communication isn't merely about the exchange of information, but also human interaction.

"In the future, too, you're not going to want to maintain a friendship, let alone a romantic relationship, with an app constantly acting as an intermediary."

What's more, Stefanowitsch says, you can't become fully immersed in another culture when "every utterance has to be translated by a computer." Every language embodies a particular perspective of the world, he says, and you can only come to know it by learning the language.

This sentiment is shared by the Goethe-Institut, which points to the growing number of health care workers in Germany whose mother tongue isn't German. Natural speech engenders empathy, it says, asking: "Do we want to live in a world where healthcare workers communicate with patients via simultaneous translation?"

With the availability of digital translation tools, traditional foreign language teaching in schools seems old-fashioned. Nevertheless, Stefanowitsch finds that schoolchildren, "for the most part," are learning foreign languages the right way, arguing that language-learning apps can complement school lessons, but not replace them.

The Goethe-Institut expects the role of foreign language teachers and instruction to change "from simply imparting knowledge to actively supporting learners."

When the learners are at home, they could then have AI tools do their homework for them, whether it involves a foreign language or another school subject. Consequently, "in future we'll have to steer clear of all the kinds of homework that can be handled by so-called AI applications," predicts Stefanowitsch.

AI has its flaws though. Machine-generated texts are very much aimed at producing a kind of "average" language, which is why "they always sound extremely hackneyed and not very original," he says.

The Goethe-Institut warns that a proliferation of standard speech through widespread use of simultaneous speech translation systems could reduce people's vocabularies as well as endanger dialects and vernaculars, thereby impoverishing the language.

Stefanowitsch's verdict: "It's better when people do the translations, not the machines." – dpa

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