In Douglas Adam’s classic novel Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy there exists a unique and unusual species of alien called the Babel fish which when placed in a host’s ear can offer the capacity to instantly translate every known language in the universe. Last year Google released its new product, Pixel Buds. These are headphones that when attached to a Google Smartphone are designed to offer instantaneous translation to supported foreign languages.
I haven’t experimented with Google Buds but I certainly have explored a range of different translation software. In my experience the technology is flawed, often lacks nuance and cultural context. Nonetheless, when I take a step back, stop taking it all for granted and think of the incredible service that is provided, I am blown away. Whilst the hardware and software cannot yet be entirely relied upon we can all see where this is heading. I have little doubt that within the next few years we will all have access to “Babel fish” – not small, yellow aliens that live in our ear canals, but wireless wearables that offer an intelligent, fluent and sophisticated capacity to instantaneously translate conversations into other languages.
Given this impending technological revolution it is incumbent on us to consider the value of the many hours we devote to non-mother tongue language education.
Last week I attended our Years 4 and 5 Hebrew Assembly (today and next Friday will be Hebrew Assemblies for the other Junior School students). Throughout this assembly every word spoken is in Hebrew.
From a slightly shaky start, the quality and confidence of the spoken Hebrew went on to flourish. Our students performed role plays and sang songs in which they both demonstrated a strong capacity for the spoken language and showed a deepening level of understanding of the cultural context in which this language is spoken. In this way our Hebrew program is intrinsically linked to the Zionist ethos of the School. In imparting the language, our teachers expose our students to a taste of what it is like to live life in Israel and it is hoped, are better positioned to connect meaningfully with Israelis and, indeed, Jews from all over the world.
In his impressive TedX talk, Adelaide-based teacher, Louka Parry, discusses the physiological, cognitive and empathetic benefits that language education provides. He states: “The first reason you should learn another language is because it makes your brain healthier. We now know that by speaking multiple languages you can delay the onset of dementia by five years at least. We also know that multilingual speakers can increase the density of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the executive function region. This is how we solve problems, how we focus, how we distinguish between tasks. Second, learning another language makes you a better learner and communicator not least of all because you have to fail consistently and publicly… and that failure, getting comfortable with that discomfort, really is the key to all learning.”
In order to demonstrate the power of language-learning in relationship development, Parry continues to paraphrase Nelson Mandela. Mandela once said that if you speak to a person in a language they understand it goes to their head but if you speak to them in their language it goes to their heart. Parry explained through his personal experience of learning indigenous Australian languages that this allowed him to connect far more deeply with the members of the indigenous community he was then teaching in.
It seems clear to me that the wondrous technological advancements that are emerging before our eyes will have a significant impact on the way that we teach, learn and on how we live our lives. We must constantly evaluate our educational programming and adapt appropriately to relevant innovations. However, we will remain committed to providing the physiological, cognitive, intercultural and empathetic benefits that this important area of education provides.