Why learning a language is better than using machine translation

Pearson Languages
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Reading time: 7 minutes

As technology and AI translation tools continue to advance, it's becoming increasingly tempting to rely on them for language-related tasks. However, this can potentially undermine motivation to learn a new language when technology seems to offer a shortcut. While machine translation can be helpful, it also has its limitations. 

Learning a language goes beyond just communication; it opens the door to different cultures, mindsets, and perspectives of the world. Machine translation, despite its efficiency, cannot replicate the cultural immersion that comes with learning a language. Spoken language nuances, idiomatic expressions, cultural references, and implicit rules that are second nature to native speakers are often lost in translation. Let's delve deeper into why learning a language is better than solely relying on machine translation.

Why learning a language is better than machine translation
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Common translation issues

Machine translation isn't 100% perfect yet

In recent years, machine translation technologies have made significant strides. However, they can still struggle to capture the intricacies of the source language and accurately convey them in the target language, such as idioms, metaphors and wordplay, often providing a literal translation that lacks context.

A lack of knowledge about the written language or cultural norms can lead to misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Employing effective translation strategies can help address these challenges, but that takes time, testing and resources. 

Some words and expressions, like the Danish ‘hygge,’ have no direct translation and can be lost in machine translation. Machine translation networks can interpret nearly identical sentences differently due to their sensitivity to small variations. This inconsistency, along with the potential inclusion of human biases from its learning data, makes the reliability of these translations questionable at best.

Machine translation can miss context

Context is paramount in effective communication. It’s the cultural, social and linguistic backdrop that gives words their full meaning. Unfortunately, machine translation often fails to take context into account, resulting in translations that can miss the mark.

As language constantly evolves, incorporating new expressions, grammar and slang, machine translations face challenges in keeping up. This one example highlights the risk of missing context in translations and underscores the need for human translators who can navigate these changes and understand the subtleties of language.

Also these systems may segment text improperly due to complex formatting, causing translations to lack context if they’re cut in the middle of sentences.

Cultural nuances can be overlooked

Another aspect where machine translation can struggle is in recognizing and accurately translating terms of address that can vary based on certain aspects unknown to it, like age, title, relationship or social hierarchy.

For example, languages like Korean and Japanese are particularly rich in this respect, with a complex system of honorifics that can change the entire tone of a conversation. These honorifics are deeply embedded in the culture and are a crucial part of respectful communication. They signal the speaker's relationship to the listener, their relative social status, and level of formality required by the situation.

Machine translation systems may not discern these kinds of subtleties, often defaulting to the most direct or common translations without considering the context. This can lead to significant errors in communication, as using the wrong term of address might be seen as rude or inappropriate by fluent speakers.

Machine translations can lack personality

While translation technology has come a long way in terms of accuracy and fluency, it still falls short when it comes to capturing the personality or "soul" of a text. Language is not just a set of rules and vocabulary; it is a living, breathing form of expression that conveys emotions, tone and the unique style of the speaker or writer.

Every language carries its own cultural weight and subtleties, which are often intertwined with humor, irony and personal flair. These nuances are what give a language its richness and depth, and they are also what machine translations most frequently miss.

When you read a beautifully crafted piece of writing, be it literature, poetry or a heartfelt letter, you are not just processing information; you are experiencing the author's personality and emotional undertones. The choice of words, the rhythm of sentences, and the use of literary devices are all deliberate choices made by the author to evoke certain feelings and reactions.

Machine translations however, tend to operate on a purely functional level, prioritizing literal meanings over stylistic elements, thus stripping away the original flavor and personality of the text. They may be able to copy someone's style of writing, but they need that initial dataset to pull from; without the data, a machine would struggle. 

Technology isn't always at hand to do the work for you

Despite technology simplifying language translation, it isn’t always available or dependable. There may be times when you don’t have access to the internet, when your translation app doesn’t work as expected or when there just simply isn't time. In these situations, knowing the language can be invaluable.

Being self-reliant in communication is crucial in a world where technology is constantly evolving. It’s about developing the confidence to navigate and use technology effectively without constant assistance. Just as we need to be self-reliant in using technology, we also need to be self-reliant in communication. And that means learning languages.

Advantages of learning a new language

Career opportunities

Proficiency in multiple languages can open up a wide range of career opportunities. Companies are on the lookout for multilingual employees for their capacity to foster positive client relationships and demonstrate cultural awareness. Bilingual individuals are particularly sought after in fields such as U.S. government agencies, the business market, engineering and the medical field.

Being bilingual not only gives you a competitive edge in the job market but also highlights your motivation and determination. These are qualities that employers value highly. Studies have also found that bilingual individuals have improved problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, which are highly valued across most career fields.

On top of that, bilingual employees can earn more money per hour on average than those who only speak one language (depending on the industry), according to various reports and research. So learning a language can literally pay off.

More genuine interactions

Learning a language involves more than just memorizing a word list. You’re delving into a new way of thinking and using new sentences and expressing yourself. You’re learning how to communicate more effectively and authentically with people from different cultures. And that can lead to more genuine and meaningful interactions.

There are lots of different approaches and techniques to studying and learning new words. But to truly master a language, you need to use those vocabulary words in context, to understand their nuances and subtleties. And that’s something that machine translation just can’t provide.

Ultimately learning a language goes beyond mere communication - it’s about making connections. It’s about understanding and appreciating the rich tapestry of human cultures and experiences. And it’s about enriching our own lives through the process of learning and discovery.

Personal Identity

Embarking on the journey to learn a language also paves the way for self-discovery. It helps shape our personal identity and gives us a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. When we learn a new language, we’re not just learning a new way of communicating, we’re also learning a new way of thinking and viewing the world.

Being proficient in foreign languages can:

  • Broaden our cultural horizons and allow us to appreciate different cultural practices and worldviews

  • Encourage adaptability and openness to new experiences

  • Foster a global mindset

  • Promote personal growth through the development of discipline and the pursuit of continuous learning

The process of language acquisition can be a transformative experience.

Learning a second language is good for your brain

In addition to social and career advantages, learning a language also benefits your brain health. Research, such as the study conducted by Mechelli et al. (2004) in "Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain," has shown that bilingual individuals have denser grey matter in their brains, compared to monolingual individuals. This can enhance cognitive abilities, such as improved memory, better problem-solving skills and increased mental agility.

Regularly using a second language has been linked to a stronger memory, with research indicating better performance on memory tests among bilingual individuals, affecting both short-term and long-term memory, as suggested by the study conducted by Bialystok et al. (2004) in "Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: Evidence from the Simon Task". Learning a foreign language can also enhance communication skills, increasing empathy and the ability to see things from another perspective, which in turn benefits everyday communication.

Creativity is yet another domain where language learners show prowess. Studies have found that the process of learning a language seems to unlock creative abilities in problem-solving and flexibility, as indicated by research like that of Kharkhurin (2009) in "The role of bilingualism in creative performance on divergent thinking".

So, whether you’re looking to boost your career, expand your horizons or just keep your brain sharp, learning a language is a really good idea.

Should I be using machine/AI translations at all then?

By all means, machine translations can be a helpful aid in certain contexts, such as quickly understanding the gist of a text or facilitating basic communication in a pinch. They are convenient when you need a fast translation and are dealing with simple, straightforward sentences. However, they should not be relied upon for deep understanding or nuanced communication.

Consider machine translation as a supplementary tool rather than a substitute for learning a language. It is when the intricate layers of language come into play—such as idioms, cultural references, and humor—that human touch becomes indispensable. So use machine translations with caution and awareness of their limitations, especially in situations where accuracy and cultural sensitivity are paramount.

Conclusion

Learning a language offers students numerous benefits over machine translation. It opens up new career opportunities, fosters deeper connections, enhances cognitive abilities and contributes to personal identity development. While machine translation tools have their place and can be very useful, they can’t replace the rich and nuanced understanding that comes with learning a language.

It’s a journey of discovery, a way to broaden your horizons and a key to unlocking the knowledge of cultures, history and experiences. And that’s something that no translation system or tool can ever provide.

Take the leap and pick up a new language with our language learning app Mondly by Pearson or read our post 'Why should I learn English?'

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