As a language teacher living in an age of translation software, students often ask why do they have to learn a foreign language when there are apps and websites to do that for them.
It’s true, machine translation is faster and easier than the human process, but often as not it’s not always accurate and to the point, utterly dependent on an external device. Forget or lose your device, or run out of battery and you’re stuck.
Students have been told repeatedly that one word translations never hurt, but the longer the sentence you input into any software at this point, the higher margin for error there is. At a glance it’s obvious when a student decides to cut and paste an entire paragraph into Google Translate and hope that what comes out makes sense. No surprise, it doesn’t.
That’s not to say I don’t use translation software, I do, but only after I’ve attempted to put together a sentence in my rough Japanese first and then see how the software interprets it. And even then I’ll run it by a native Japanese before I’m sure that the Frankenstein result of my efforts is acceptable.
The fact of the matter is translation software can cope with a sentence like, ‘I like cats.’, but will strain with concepts that aren’t globally understood and it is a well known fact that there are things in the Japanese language that software simply cannot cope with this. For example, I challenge you to input 侘び寂び into Google Translate right now. Go on. Did you do it? What came out? Wabisabi in English, correct?
So if the software cannot translate it then how as a Japanese person, perhaps showing a foreign friend around, do you explain this very Japanese concept? Well, if you’ve studied any language then chances are that you’ve picked up the culture as well and it is this acquired background info which would allow you to explain to that foreign friend that Wabisabi is a kind of aesthetic appreciating the beauty of imperfection.
Learning a language is more than cat=ねこ, some languages don’t lend themselves to A=B because the foundation of the languages are too disparate. European languages are all essentially variations of the same and therefore easier to translate, but the same cannot be said of a European language to an Asian or African one. It is only by studying the language and with it the culture that true understanding of a foreign language can happen.
For dry instructional writing translation software can handle the heavy lifting, but for human to human communication studying languages will always be paramount. So kids, study your English, unlike your phone, your mind won’t run out of power and unlike software you can cope with concepts like 侘び寂び.