Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Is Learning a Language a Waste of Time?

A few years ago, Google released an ad touting their next big thing: the ability to translate spoken conversations as they happen. The app could transform any smartphone into a wrecking ball for language barriers — in a world in which even prosperous European countries routinely descend into madness over language, such technology could be a game-changer.

For many, especially those who speak English as their native tongue, new breakthroughs in translation software provide yet another excuse not to bother with all the time, energy, and social awkwardness that it takes to learn a new language. They have some compelling arguments. Most people do not travel abroad that much. Even if you do, you can generally get by with English (or, to a lesser extent, another major world language) in major tourist destinations. Likewise with great works of literature; in our digital age, the whole Internet is available in whichever language you like.

I am writing from Istanbul (not Constantinople) in Turkey (now they want you to call it Türkiye). As someone who speaks precious little Turkish, some part of me wishes that we did, in fact, live in a post-language barrier world. But for a variety of reasons, we do not.

Put not your faith in fancy apps, lest you end up in the Pig World.

Beginning on the most banal level, mobile coverage outside one’s home country is often spotty or expensive. My American friends sometimes make fun of me for wasting time with other languages instead of something practical like buying NFTs, but when we got lost on a hike in some arid valley outside Izmir, everyone was glad I spent the flight over here doing a crash course in Turkish. In the past year alone, I have had similar experiences from Peru to Austria. Really living life does not happen on Web 3.0.

There are still compelling practical, intellectual, cultural, and professional reasons to learn another language. First of all, while translation technologies have made great strides in the past decade, they still struggle with complete sentences even in major European languages; for more exotic ones, they offer more comedic than practical value. Faithfully translating colloquial language is tricky, and industry leaders like Google and Duolingo tend to prefer the straightforward business of adding basic offerings in Cherokee or Dothraki to beefing up Italian and Turkish, so this is likely to remain a problem for the foreseeable future.

Even if you never travel, learning a language can be enriching. If you are interested in literature, reading a translation is certainly better than nothing, but it inevitably entails some distortion of cultural perspective. The standard English version of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s bizarrely amusing Notes from Underground opens, “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man…” The English rendering “spiteful” may have packed a punch for punctilious Victorians, but the original Russian zloi means something more akin to “wicked.”

Don Quixote contains several references to perfidious tailors (sastres), which seems odd in English, but is all part of the joke if one is familiar with the dodgy implications of sastrería in early modern Spanish. I had a hell of a time hacking through Franz Kafka’s The Trial in the original, because Kafka leverages German’s uncanny flexibility to construct insane run-on sentences that reinforce the absurdist narrative.

For the time being, travelers who rely on translation apps are tilting at high-tech windmills.

One cannot even rely entirely on texts written in one’s own language, without some background in how it has changed over time. One injunction in the King James Bible holds that, “To have respect of persons is not good.” The true purport of the verse is to discourage unjust bias, and English speakers at the time would have understood it thus. But one hopes that today’s Christians do not take what is popularly felt to be the most authoritative version of the Good Book too literally.

When the eponymous King James’ grandson James II saw the newly-constructed St. Paul’s Cathedral, he described it as “amusing, awful, and artificial.” He meant that it was pleasing to the eye, awe-inspiring, and a triumph of craftsmanship. Next time you read any book that was originally written in an entirely different language, remember how much subtle semantic shifts can influence meaning.

For an amusing car ride game, try to think of something that is amusing, awful, and artificial in the modern senses of those words (my choice is a water park). Then use a generator to choose three more adjectives.

Speaking another language can also boost your career, even if you are not very good at it. I am a novice at Latin, and I certainly never expect to give a presentation in it. But people regularly comment on it being listed on my CV, and it does pop up all over the place, even in fields like finance where people like to think of themselves as ultra-modern and practical. Speaking another language is kind of like having a background in physics: even if you never apply it to your job, people just think you are smarter.

Of course, it is best if you can apply your language skills to actual communication. Language is, after all, all about connecting with people. Next time you go abroad or meet with someone from another country, try learning two or three basic phrases. I guarantee it will make any interaction warmer and more meaningful (unless, perhaps, you are in France).

No matter how good technology gets, no one wants to communicate through some creepy robot. Learning a language challenges you mentally, socially, and spiritually like nothing else in the world. In our increasingly digital world, is that not more important now than ever?

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Sam Quillen

Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets