Technology vs language learning

While keeping up with my fair share of technology news, I come across the odd article on language learning and how technology is helping us in this field. The question is helping us with what? While one side is offering different ways to assist us with language learning itself (Mango, Rosetta Stone, LiveMocha, etc), the dark side, as I will deem it, is taking away the need to actually learn anything.

This darker side (usually promoted by Google) encourages the use of technology over the study of another language, so that we may take a picture of a menu or street sign in another language (see article link above) instead of actually knowing what the sign or menu says because we have put hard work into studying that langauge. Additionally, there are advances in translation software, helped along by crowd-sourced corrections, that practically render knowing another language for business or pleasure obsolete. Team that with the fact so many of us are walking around with mini computers in our pockets which are wired to the Internet and for the would-be budding lingophile, the magic comes from someone else’s knowledge rather than our own. As icing on the cake, Google is hard at work on voice-to-voice translation technology as well.

For the more beautiful living langauges among us, such as Portuguese, where does that leave us? It will most-likely leave us with a population of would-be language lovers who visit Brazil without the need to place any effort into understanding the intricacies of its culture, much less the language because their smartphone puts the magic of language learning at the tips of their fingers rather than on the tips of their tongues.

For more on the subject, see the comments section for a follow-up discussion.


12 thoughts on “Technology vs language learning

  1. I think the majority of people visiting other countries don’t bother to learn the local language anyway. Google translator would help these people to get in touch with the language and communicate with the locals.

    And, similarly, people that do care about learning about the local culture will want to learn the language anyway, and Google translator can be of great help.

    My first language is Portuguese and learning English became so much easier over the last few years because it allowed me to access much more resources than before. I use Google translator a lot. I look up word definitions in Google at least 5 times a day. I find out how to pronounce words in different accents.

    Before, I had to rely on a paper dictionary and a teacher – which, I’m sorry, are not as accurate and up-to-date as the internet.

    I don’t believe in any dark side of technology in language learning. If you’re interested, you’ll make the most of it.

    • Erica,

      Your English is really good. I would not assume you were a native Portuguese speaker just judging by your English here.

      Please don’t take this question the wrong way: How much time and effort did you spend using internet tools to write your comment?

      To be honest with you, I find myself spending a lot of time using ALC (for Japanese), Wikipedia, Google ” ” hits/searches for many other languages, often reconfirming what I should know or have by now memorized.

  2. Thanks Erica,

    In the post, I was refering to the fact that people are and will continue to rely on such technology instead of thinking for themselves. Sure we can regulate our own personal use for certain circumstances where it aids us best but I don’t think most people will stop to think how technology is changing their behavior over time.

    With everything online and everyone connected easily, we have no more need to have memory (the biological kind, not the computer kind). The kind of thinking that says “I don’t need to know anything because with a quick search, I can find out about something”, is dangerous.

    • In my opinion, the question you are getting to is not biological vs. computer memory, but instead the old “book” smarts vs “street” smarts conversation.

      Dependence on instant, connected and otherwise efficient internet search engines (and the habits they can easily form) is just an extreme manifestation of a deeper dependence on books and other forms of the written word to supply quicker answers, corroborate opinions, and, in a way, deepen memory, but only visually. Outloud discussion introduces other senses, which all build strong “book-smart” memories, whatever they may be.

      Technology-based language learning has the potential to both minimize and maximize the sensual learning experience. A minimized example is an instant, “brainless” online dictionary, almost entirely visual with no contemplation time, and probably a low rate of recall. A maximized example would be audio/visual recording technology used to playback and analyze live conversations with native speakers all around the world.

      An ideal language environment for me personally would be a blend of the most efficient, sensually-engaging technology, and those “other” real, visceral, unforceable experiences and memories we form when we shut down the computer, close the book, and walk outside and start interacting with the world.

      As a side note, I “think” that we people rarely think for ourselves, and we rarely recognize that that our intentions are not as altruistic, our beliefs are not as strengthened by inquiry, and thoughts and ideas are not as original and creative as we would like to believe. Just recognize this, ride the wave of energy, and do whatever you can to be happy. Maybe :)

      • In a sense, I would say knowledge has a long history of being used against us, to control us. Before libraries, how much access did people really have to knowledge, were the elders of a community the only source and how reliable was their knowledge (they would perhaps explain a phenomenon by invoking a spirit, or maybe they would have a deep understanding of local plants but not of plants 500 miles away). All in all, I’m sure their type of knowledge served their local community well enough. While I don’t think access to knowledge should be restricted to a few elders (or shall we call them modern day professors and intellectuals), I do see the danger in opening the flood gates to entire generations because it can easily give everyone a sort of ADD ( and all of a sudden, no one has anymore analytical skills.

        On the other hand, our educational system applauds being right and thus kills non-group think, innovation and creativity ( We are taught the kind of knowledge that will place us well within the existing system instead of socially being allowed the freedom to come to our own conclusions without the backlash of being outcasted for simply thinking differently. Whether through ‘real’ knowledge, book knowledge, internet knowledge or any other kind, we should feel free enough to roam rather than feeling we have to go through the motions, to fall in line in order to be happy, successful, etc.

        We need a revolution to occur although from all I understand, revolutions are led while only revolts are truly grassroots. So then let’s call it a paradigm shift, we need one that changes our view enough to change our system and we need to be able to do it without losing ourselves to the computer (which is our modern day notebook, stereo, spreadsheet, library, you get the picture). My main issue with where I think we are headed is that there will come a time when no one thinks critically anymore and this is the downfall of a society, where we give away our power to our masters (scientists, experts, gods, lawmakers, bankers and celebrities).

      • Nice comments and citations, especially the TED talk.

        I agree with your points, that “knowledge” should be neither restricted to a few nor left unchecked, and I think that freedom of thought (the roaming) is a precursor to the critical thinking that will fuel the paradigm shift. As the Information Week article alludes to, information in the Google Generation is a commodity; the scarcity is the skills to analyze and filter all that information from a variety of sources. This revolution will indeed involve intellectual-led skeptic debunking, but as Michael Shermer says “let’s face it, there is a lot of bunk”.

        We might as well be discussing democracy. As citizens of the earth, we all have an inherent opportunity to learn new ideas, voice our thoughts, and change the world, but we in fact tend to seek the lowest energy state possible, deferring all sorts of responsibility to naturally-emerging group leaders (backed by the scientists, experts, gods, etc). I am not sure, but I think we need leaders, guides, teachers, manuals, “bibles” not as a single sole source of what we want or need, but as a supplement to the wanderings of auto-didacticism towards self-awareness.

  3. Hey Adam,

    Am a huge fan of your blog and thought I’d grab the excuse to post! Here’s an interesting project from the UK called, which provides a platform for schools in different countries to co-operate online and a reasonably free environment for the kids to socialise. I guess the relevance to this post is that I think the project is likely to be a great source of early inspiration to kids to learn more about other cultures and their languages – especially English speaking children perhaps, who at least here in the UK can be a bit sheltered from exposure to interesting stuff which is not in English!

    I suspect that my language lover heart does fall on the technology-is-useful side of this argument (at least for me personally – hey I wouldn’t be learning new Portuguese phrases from your YouTube channel otherwise ;) ), but I was mostly posting this just because I thought you might be interested in the project (which I’m not involved with, although I slightly wish I was ;) )

    Big thanks for the constant stream of interesting info, great stuff!



    • Thank you Suzy,

      I will check out the link! I’ve just written a few more responses to the technology discussion in the comments section if you’d like to see more of where my thinking lies, because I do agree that technology helps…I just fear that it will be our brain that helps the information stored on our computers instead of the other way around.

  4. I am struggling to learn Portuguese, and I find Google translate invaluable. Google often does a better job at giving me a translation for idioms than do the various English/Portuguese dictionaries I have.

    Prior to this, Google translate was also useful for keeping in touch with friends in Brazil. Now, my own desire to have actual real-time conversations is motivating me to attend conversation groups and to struggle to read Brazilian books. This has been somewhat aided by nudging from Brazilian friends who think I should have learned the language already.

    In short, my point is that Google translate can be a good way to access things about a culture, and expand a person’s interest and involvement with that culture. Ultimately, this may lead to more people being motivated to actually learn the language.

    • Hi Adrian,

      I understand. Most commenters are making the same point, that they have been greatly helped by the likes of Google when it comes to language learning…well, me too. I even use it today and I’ll be using it tomorrow too but I wrote the post as a way to express concern over a reliance on such technology as time pushes on, where our knowledge is given to the computer as sort of an extension of our own brain instead of walking around with that knowledge in our own head through hard work and study.

      I agree that resources such as Google translate are quite helpful but the degree of helpfulness depends on each one of us and how we balance such use with real world experience. There’s a somewhat similar argument for language acquisition over language learning ( which I agree with.


  5. Pingback: Technology vs Language learning « Eyes On Portuguese

  6. Pingback: Reflections on other Language Learning blogs « student10110763

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