Translating Technology and Finding Your Identity

When tech can translate everything, language becomes about seeking your identity in a globalized and digital world.

Technology has made it incredibly easy for people to connect and communicate with one another. Not only is it possible to look up the meaning of any word on your phone, but there are countless applications that can live translate presentations or even speech, bringing us ever closer to the Star Trek Universal Translator scenario where we will be able to understand what another person (or alien) is saying, whatever language they happen to speak.

It seems language learning as we know it is fast becoming obsolete. In Britain, for example, the number of students taking modern foreign languages has plummeted because British children — already spoilt by the fact that English is so widely spoken around the world — have become increasingly reliant on tools such as Google Translate.

Quartz language and technology identity Basque Country Global Teacher Prize Varkey Foundation

Yet at the same time as British teens are turning their back on traditionally valued languages such as German, French and Spanish, Britain is experiencing a strong surge of interest in local idioms, with take-up of languages such as Irish and Scottish Gaelic up by 33% over the past five years. In Wales, where the survival of traditional communities had previously been threatened by young people moving way, there is now a growing demand for Welsh-medium education and over a quarter of pupils are taught in Welsh.

Yet these seemingly contradictory phenomena are actually related. They’re simply different reactions to growing automation and globalization, which renders many of the skills we used to value obsolete and erases traditional borders. And this is leading people to turn back to their local roots and identity as a way of navigating the flux and uncertainty they find themselves surrounded with.

A recent poll of 15 countries showed a common language is the most important factor in defining a nation’s identity. So the feeling expressed by Welsh First Minister’s Carwin Jones when he said that “Welsh is part of what defines us as a nation” is something that chimes across many cultures, particularly ones that were traditionally oppressed through being denied access to their language, as was the case with First Nations people in Canada.

Quartz language and technology identity Basque Country Global Teacher Prize Varkey Foundation

“Knowing your language can be so important in developing cultural identity, and having cultural identity also develops resilience in a context that we’re dealing with so many problems such as youth suicide,” agrees Maggie MacDonnell, who this year won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize awarded by the Varkey Foundation for her work with the Inuit community of Nunavik. Her region, neslted in the deep Canadian Arctic has the highest rate of Inuktitut speakers amongst all Inuit groups worldwide:

“All my students speak Inuktitut, and are taught exclusively in the language from primary to grade four. It’s so important that kids have a sense of belonging and pride in who they are and that’s what makes the preservation of language for our indigenous people so profound at this moment,” she explains

Being a citizen of the world is about constantly negotiating multiple identities,“ adds Pello Salaburu, director of the Basque Language Institute. “We call ourselves Euskaldunak, which roughly translates as ‘people who own the Basque language.’ To be Basque is to speak Basque, and living in a globalized society it is important to have different identities you can match with, otherwise you feel lost.”

Read the full article on Quartz

Originally published at Tech Trends.