How New Technologies Are Changing Language Learning

But is changing how we work in high school?

I recently had this conversation with a colleague from another school, about teaching foreign languages in school and the challenges we face in this changing world of technology. It is like this article in Forbes dated May 2018, questions, are these opportunities for better or worse?

The latest product I was made aware of is Micorosft translate. The app lets you use the microphone, or keyboard to get instant translations, or in my opinion, the coolest option, in real-time speak or type in your language to communicate with other participants in the conversation. Other participants will see your messages in their own language. When you start this conversation you choose your language and get a code to involve the other participants in the conversation.

I was recently speaking at a conference in Warsaw Polen frse, where the interpreter was sitting in a booth at the end of the conference room. When I was speaking I had to wait for her to finish her interpretation before I could speak. With this translator software, I would have had the questions on my phone, or with headphones in my ear.

Google’s new wireless headphones offer real-time translation from Google Translate. See the video below where they test the product.

Microsoft Word offers a way to translate as well. Word is used by every student in high school in Norway and I am confident most of them know about this option. When you write something in Word, all you have to do is to choose Tools and Translate and the result will look a little like this.

Can students use this when they have tests and exams? With all three options, you need to be online, which I would say we are pretty much all the time. But during an exam, students are not. This is my concern, we need to have this conversation at school but also on higher levels. What are the competencies our students need regarding foreign languages? How should we change our teaching and learning in the age of technology? Could we offer different levels of foreign languages like we do in math? Practical and theoretical? Either way, it is important to have this conversation with our students. Using these tools can offer students the help they need, but only when we agree to use it. When we are assessing how our students master the material we need to know what we are assessing. Is it used as a translation tool? When is it useful to use technology when is it not? Perhaps if you are on the lowest level, being able to get by with technology could be a minimum requirement?

There’s no doubt that technologies like this will have a massive impact on the way we learn, the way we live and the way we work. Some believe they’ll even eradicate the need to learn it at all — like Joshua Cooper Ramo, author of The Seventh Sense, who makes a case that more data means less need for human intervention. With advancements like real-time translations already showing up in early adaptations, the claim would render language learning nearly obsolete. Forbes

But then again, knowledge and the ability to speak other languages and to have a deep understanding of different cultures is important. Especially in light of globalization and the increasing tendency of alienation we are experiencing, the cultures of us and them.  The article in Forbes explains the difference between the needs of the learner.  That technology for language learning is primarily aimed at and built for learners at beginner levels. Learning a language is a long journey that requires different support structures along the way. Let’s hope we still can maintain the level of proficiency amongst are language learners. After all, Norwegians are known for their ability to speak foreign languages. At least I hope we are!

I would argue that his findings support the need for a level of “knowing” in language learning that can’t be replaced by machines or self-study tools, no matter how immersive or realistic. I also believe that cultural subtleties, connotations and idiomatic usage simply can’t be fully conveyed without real human interaction. After all, language is fundamentally not based on the memorization of vocabulary items or grammar systems, but rather on “pragmatics” — a fancy term for confidence, cultural knowledge and situational awareness — as well as the comprehension of the rich, authentic social context, and the corresponding ability to produce the spoken language for personally meaningful social and business interactions. This is a misunderstanding that is really at the root of many of the language learning products out there on the market. James Rohrbach

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