A recent news item coming out of the Washington campus of Microsoft suggests the mega-company is developing software that can translate what you say into 26 different languages. In a version of your own voice, mind you.

Just picture it; you’re traveling in Thailand. You say something into your phone and then instantly get to talk to an entire population of people whom you previously would never have been able to communicate with previously. The ability to do this opens so many doors, the possibilities are exponentially amazing.

Such a technology then begs the question: If technology can be created to allow us to instantly communicate from one language into another, what’s the point of learning a new language? 

Could such a product eliminate the need for spending countless hours learning tones, memorizing vowel charts, and studying kids books?

In a word? No.

The Reality of Artificial Intelligence

Let’s be serious. Technology is cool, iPhones are the bee’s knees, and it would be great if every home had a transporter room. All of that is great, but the reality is that no level of AI is going to replace actual interaction. Software can’t detect emotion, software can’t interpret body language and, most importantly, who the hell wants to have a computer chip build personal relationships for them?

I will concede that software such as what Microsoft is developing — assuming it actually works well — could be a huge help to tourists who are traveling to a region one time for vacation. But, if you are serious about prolonged exposure to another culture, there is no substitute for being able to communicate on a deep level with the native people. I’m sorry, but having a phone talk on your behalf is actually rather insulting, in my opinion. I cannot for one second imagine trying to have a conversation with my wife where I first have to talk into a phone and then hold it up to her ear.

Stop the Intellectual Laziness

Though I am by no means a technology hater, I believe we are way too wrapped up in how many G’s our phones have, how many apps we have on our smart phones/tablets, and I think technology is making us exponentially dumber with every new product release. Language is about relationships, not about getting out what you have to say quickly. You will reap so many more “life rewards” by learning another language the old-fashioned way. You will gain infinitely more life experience (and actual friends) by royally screwing up what you’re trying to say because you’re trying so hard but just not getting it.

It’s not just about the words.

In essence, I think this software has potential, just not for learning a language. Perhaps that’s not the intent, anyway; who knows? Just remember that technology is a learning aid, not a crutch. Use your gadgets to help you learn Thai just as you would a dictionary or flash cards; but please don’t try to use it as a communication proxy or learning substitute. While there is room to get excited when Star Trek edges closer to our reality, don’t let it distract you from your mission. Don’t allow it to cause your books to collect dust and your brain to stop being exercised.

Okay, you can stop reading now. You have a language to learn. Get to work! There’s plenty of studying and practicing to be done.