Friday, February 13, 2015

Polly Lingual

I've always loved languages, because they are a window into people's souls, and you can, by knowing their avenues of expression, understand their avenues of feeling and interpreting their worlds. Those who defend the process of learning a language as good for the human soul have always defended that idea - that it expands your horizons to see how others think, and express themselves, and use different words to express what is essentially the feelings that all humans have.

I studied languages all through college, every chance I had. I took some German, and then a class in French, and then two years of Russian (I'd already had Spanish in high school), and then, in graduate school, a semester of Sanskrit. When I lived in Korea I studied it, and I also studied Yiddish and a few other languages a little. What limited me really was number of words. You'd have to have a few thousand to really get started on any of them, and the thousands I'd learn to get started on a new one would in effect push some others into the dustbin of my memory. So I'd be most current in Korean, for example, and forget all my Spanish words (not the grammar, really, I managed to hang onto that) - and when I'd start speaking Spanish again, I simply didn't have the words.

This single greatest impediment to me has now been eliminated. So, now, if I want to learn a new language, all I have to do is apply Google Translate, or its phone app, to that language, and the words are taken care of, I've got the words. I still have to learn how to pronounce it in a way people can understand it, and I've still got to construct some kind of grammar, and I still have to see how words are interrelated. But if my brain could only hold a few thousand words, and that was preventing me from learning a third or fourth language, that part, now, is no longer a problem. I need a word, I can get it. If I'm writing, GT will take care of it; if I'm speaking, using my phone effectively will put all the words right at my fingertips. Now I should say that this isn't quite true for every language yet (I have a friend who is hankering for Mongolian, but Scottish Gaelic is another example) - and in fact it is the languages that have a shortage of either computer programmers, or people who are completely familiar with the grammar, that are having the most trouble. But slowly, people will fill in the gaps. They will all be covered, or they will disappear.

Another problem is that machine translators have trouble with metaphoric variation, so that when you say on the other hand, the machine has to figure out whether you are actually referring to your hand, in which case the literal word meaning "hand" will be useful, or whether you mean "however," in which case some other word will be more useful in the language you are trying to translate to. People used to think machines could not get past this block, but they can. There are unusual ways to do it, and there are more standard ways to do it. Machines will get better at it.

My mind is now free to concentrate on my biggest job as a language translator, which is unscrambling jumbled words from one language to another. One gets better at this, though. One can now learn ten, twenty, thirty languages, so more of our ESL students will be coming from this kind of pattern. The words won't be an issue. Eliminating memory as a requirement for learning good languages will be like eliminating memory as a requirement for telling long stories, as what happened when they invented the printing press; languages will be in a new era, because they'll have so many more participants, and memory won't be a requirement for anyone to participate in a new one.

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