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Is Technology the Biggest Threat to Language Learning?

Technology has a history of overcoming challenges for us, and the latest advances in machine translation could bring us one step closer to a world without language barriers.

But like all cures, technology comes with some unwelcome side-effects and this promotional video from Skype may give us a glimpse into the future.

The footage shows English and Spanish speaking pupils talk as Skype translates their conversation in real time. It's a touching demonstration, but if technology someday manages to crack the translation code, what does this mean for language learning and education?

Machine translation is serious business

When tech giants Microsoft (Skype) and Google both get involved in machine translation, you know it means serious business. Not only are they fully invested in breaking the language barrier, they're already competing against each other and both have made headlines in recent months with major software updates. So you can expect things to progress.

At a glance, the new features seem like ground breaking feats for machine translation. In December, Skype demoed the latest version of Translator, using the video above, and Google stepped in shortly after with an update to its own translation app.

Google Translate now offers voice recognition for up to six languages, and the app will even convert your speech into text or audio; while the new Word Lens feature means you can point your smartphone camera at text (say a road sign) and get an on-screen translation in 36 different languages.

The impact on professionals and education

Needless to say, the updates have created a buzz in the translation industry. Audio translation has been around for decades, and with the demand for video increasing rapidly, video translation is on the increase too. However, most experts maintain that, while these features are impressive, they don't actually improve the standard of machine translation in any way.

So while professionals don't feel threatened by the machines just yet, a question remains over the future of education and language learning in general. Although Skype will argue Translator can help education, the demo footage hints at a future where children no longer need to learn languages.

The notion that English is the only necessary language is already too prevalent, and Brits are famous for this attitude. Meanwhile, other nations are widely enthusiastic about learning English, even if it's just for business purposes. So behind the cute smiles and kid's laughter what does Skype Translator really achieve in this video? Does it connect people from different backgrounds or merely save native English speakers from learning another language?

What happens if we lose the need to learn new languages?

Research from the Guardian and British Academy, last year, illustrated what young people consider the main advantages to learning a new language. Better job prospects, communicating with other people and learning about another culture ranked as the top three – but the cognitive and neurological merits of learning a second language can't be ignored.

The cognitive benefits of language learning are well documented - from stronger control mechanisms of the brain to reduced mental aging and better conflict resolution. Not only that but the learning process has been shown to drastically improve the academic performance of younger people in early and later life. Which means there is far more at stake than the obvious professional and cultural riches associated with language study.

Did Skype miss a trick with its Translator demo?

A key question the big names in translation need to address is, what exactly do they aim to achieve? It's not likely Microsoft, Google or anyone else is on a mission to sabotage young people's education, but they have a responsibility to tread carefully.

Think of video call translation, and surely the boardroom is the place to advertise this kind of technology – to grown professionals who don't have the time to study. With over 6,000 spoken languages in the world there is plenty of room for people to learn languages and still use tools like Skype Translator – as an addition, rather than a replacement.

And while footage of American and Mexican pupils befriending each other is a heart-warming example of how the technology can be used, Microsoft could be more honest about its best purpose – translating business video calls.

The price of an easier life

A big talking point around technology is whether it makes us lazy and dependant. With every problem it solves another challenge disappears and we're in danger of making life too easy for ourselves. Creative problem solving, mental and physical strength all need regular exercise to keep in shape; while the sense of achievement from overcoming obstacles is something every growing mind should experience.

We already have a problem in the UK with a dwindling interest in learning foreign languages, and the last thing we need is another excuse to avoid it. You may have seen the Guardian report last year on the possibility of 'smart drugs' being the answer to language learning. It sparks an interesting debate over morals and ethics but it also shows the extent of our quest for the simple life.

Machine translation doesn't sound as drastic as the term 'smart drugs', but the wider side-effects of technology is a topic that needs discussion. Type 'the negative effects of social media' into a search engine and you'll find a string of studies citing its addictive nature and psychological impact. This doesn't mean social media, machine translation or any other example of technology is a bad thing, but it shows a negative side that needs to be addressed – especially when it comes to young people and education.