Polyglot is a word that is new to most people’s vocabularies. It describes someone who learns multiple languages. It seems kind of ironic in that learning foreign languages you become something for which you must learn a new word in English. The word was probably popularised more by Benny Lewis who has turned an inability to learn foreign languages into an ability to pick them up at a seemingly unnatural pace, claiming three months is adequate for fluency. He has now even published a book by the title ‘fluent in three months’ or ‘Fliessend in Drei Monaten’, which I presume he translated himself.
As more and more jobs are taken up by robots and finding employment becomes harder language ability becomes ever more important. There are many jobs that people believed could never be automated which are increasing danger of being handed over to machines, if they have not already been. It can be difficult to say which jobs are unlikely to be given to machines in the future. Skills and abilities that are considered to be things only humans can do are quickly being developed to a higher and higher extent in computers. Looking at how man made items are still appreciated over mass produced products it seems there is likely to always be options for craftsmen but language and translation looks like its value is disappearing. Google translate, real time voice translation and cameras that translate signs are all putting extra nails in the coffin of employability.
Language learning is in far less danger than it appears though. Direct personal interaction is one of those skills where humans are definitely recognised as an essential part of the process. Conversation is an art and a translator in an important business deal or a political exchange has a more important role to play than it first seems. A translator is able to subtly affect the meaning of phrases and terms by things as simple as tone of voice. Whether all translators realise this is uncertain. To be able to speak directly without any intervening need for a translator (human or otherwise) is a mark of respect that can win points in a deal with people from other nations. It is additionally a skill that reaps benefits in the distant future as it has been shown that an ability with multiple languages can protect against the brain disorders that become increasingly inevitable as you grow older.
Think of how much more enjoyable it is to watch a foreign movie without having to read subtitles and without having to listen to bad dubbed on sound. Not to mention the beauty of hearing interesting new words; a term I heard that I particularly liked the other day was Brannen Skadet in Norwegian, even though it means fire damaged it feels so nice coming off the tongue. If you appreciate the beauty of old literature and poetry then just imagine how it must feel to read old literature and poetry in Dutch, a language that has some fantastic 18th century words.
If anything the wealth of computer translation software is most likely to increase our natural capacity to speak other languages. The fact that you are reading this in English probably means you are likely to know fewer languages than the people of most nations of the world simply because they often have to learn English on top of their native language. This puts an advantage in their direction as they prove that in addition to anything you can do they can also speak their own language natively. Sites like duolingo and memrise seem to be appearing all the time; apps on the smartphones offer multiple ways to learn multiple languages. It becomes easier all the time to learn new languages. If you don’t want to make an extra effort then it is still easy to simply turn on subtitles in DVDs to expose yourself to different languages.
As far as my usual blogs go this one is a bit self indulgent, but if it can encourage a single person to enrich their life with a new language then I am glad to have written it. It can be very important to dismiss language skills now that it is so easy to get good translations but there are so many reasons aside from the desire to obtain a translation that mean language learning will remain of importance to us far into the future, if not forever.