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Will machines conquer English?

7 January 2020
By Simon Palmer

Imagine you're at an international conference. Delegates come from all over the world and there's the usual buzz of conversation in the lobby during the morning coffee break. Today, those conversations are very probably in English, but imagine if everyone could speak their own mother tongue AND be understood by their foreign colleagues because they are wearing an earpiece that is interpreting the conversation in real time.

This is not as far away as you may think. You can already dictate a text message in Danish into your mobile via Siri; send the message to your French friend, who can then use Google Translate to translate the text into French. Your French friend can then have Siri read the page aloud.

It's not perfect, but the jump to the conference scenario doesn't seem that great, and of course there's technology around that is a little better at this than our smartphones.

If all this does transpire, then why learn a foreign language? Could this be the death of English as the lingua franca?

The future of English and machine translation

The future of English and machine translation (MT) was the subject of a recent TAUS (Translation Automation User Society) webinar. The webinar formed the basis of an internal workshop on the issue at GlobalDenmark.

There is no doubt that right now English is the dominant language of commerce, of science, and not least of the internet.

According to Lane Greene

According to Lane Greene, one of the expert panellists in the webinar, in northern Europe 80%-90% of the population can converse in English. In southern Europe the figure is less, but if we focus on the under 55s, then the figures again approach 90%. In Africa, where the population is expected to grow most over the next 50 years, English is the fourth most spoken language. The first three are Swahili, Amharic and Hausa, so when China invests in a new road or mining project in Africa, English is more than likely to be the language in which the stakeholders communicate.

So, according to Lane Greene such growth is proof that English will continue as the lingua franca.

According to Nicholas Ostler

The second expert, Nicholas Ostler, takes the opposite view. He thinks machines will take over translation and interpretation.

His primary argument is that if we don't have to learn a language we won't. Learning a language is a pain and we'll always take the easy way out.

He also argues that Lane Greene's perspective is based on relatively short-term data. In the long term, MT will get better and better and negate the need to learn another language. He believes the use of English will peak in the 21st century.

Nicholas Ostler continued that large countries like Japan and China, and countries in Latin America already have their 'lingua franca'; namely Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese. People from these countries are much happier with what they know rather than having to bother with a new language.

On the other hand

On the other hand, we're also converging on English through other channels.

Children today tweet, snap, watch movies and chat on computer games in English every day, no matter where they come from. They learn English at school from an ever-younger age. Perhaps all this will mean that the next generation will automatically grow up almost bilingual and they'll only need to make a minimal effort to hone their already acquired English skills to speak fluently and comfortably.

In other words, supply will feed demand. The more people who speak English the more useful it will be to speak English and thus the greater the demand.

So where does all this leave us?