Tech won’t Kill Your Love of French… or Any Other Language

Jeremiah Owjang recently asked a question on Twitter: “Should today’s toddlers learn multiple languages, considering that translation software continues to improve?

I cringed when I saw this.

I spend a large part of my life learning languages. I speak five. My mother tongue is Italian. I learned English and German in my formative years and did my studies at a German speaking university. I then added Czech in my late twenties for work and French in my early thirties when I lived in Brussels.Learning a language is like physical work. Your entire being is involved. I sat for so many hours learning German vocabulary and verbs that the carpet in my old room at my parents’ house still bears the signs left by my desk’s chair.

Over the years, as I began to use my languages for work, I realised that it is not the vocabulary or the pronunciation or the sounds, it is the mental space you enter when you speak a language.You inhabit the same dimension as your counterpart. You begin to see things from their point of view. They can relax with you. They can use expressions their mother thought them at the kitchen table. And that’s where trust magically comes in… There are things people will only tell you in their mother tongue.

When I worked as a journalist in post-communist Prague in the 1990s, one of my contacts was a very senior banker. We used to have coffee regularly and I would get leads for stories.  We did this for a few years speaking English but it was only when we began speaking Czech that he told me what was really going on behind what we were reading in the Czech newspapers at the time.

And of course, there is the fact, documented in many studies, that speaking another language makes your brain more flexible. Often, when I switch from English to German, my first words come out as a literal translation but then… my brain gymnastic kicks in and moves the formulation of my thinking around. I believe this flexibility helps you understand where people are coming from in a conversation. Your brain can pivot very quickly.

You’ll then understand why my first reaction to Jeremiah’s tweet was to tweet back making a fierce case for why technology should not spoil the amazing experience of learning multiple languages.But then I sat down and began to think…. about that role that cognitive bots could play in assisting people who speak and, particularly, write in different languages.

It wasn’t until when, as a journalist, I was writing for both English and German publications that I truly understood the intricacies of having to juggle two languages (not your mother tongue) in your head. It is all about rhythm. Before I would start writing an article for a specific publication, I would read some of its articles, enter the psyche of the language to let the sentences take form in my head.However, what I sometimes struggled with are “interferences”. I would use the article “the” too many times when writing in English or I would use too many sub-sentences… a sign that my German was interfering.

A bot could have helped me here… alerting me of what was happening and suggesting the right sentence based… not on translation software (it’s cognitive computing we are talking about here) but on my personal style in English, made up by all the articles I have ever written (hundreds), my choice of vocabulary, the influence of publications I like to read (The Economist), programs I love (60 Minutes), etc. etc. A cognitive bot can do that because it is not programmed… it learns. It gets fed all this information and learns as you go along… about how you like to write, the kind of expressions which you are good at using and make your writing stand out.

Rather than replacing your writing (or speaking) in another language, cognitive bots can stand by your side and help you through the experience.

When I was teaching myself to write in English, I would take a bunch of copies of The Economist on the long train journey from Prague to Budapest (where I used to visit one of my editors), and while the sun was setting on the Danube outside the window, I would underline words and write them in an exercise book I always carried with me. That book could now be replaced by a personal bot which would not only learn my favourite expressions, but also suggest the best route from the strain station to the restaurant on the Fisherman’s Bastion where I would be meeting a friend for dinner and book a car for me. You’ve got to love this new era!

Views my own

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