One of the most groundbreaking moments of 2017 was undoubtedly in October, when Juston Payne, one of Google’s Product Managers, launched the Google Pixel Earbuds. To the audience’s amazement, he demonstrated how he and his Swedish colleague could hold a conversation in each other’s languages, all entirely translated in-ear by Google Translate’s latest machine learning artificial intelligence technology.

The potential implications of this were huge. If we now lived in a world where we could just buy some earphones and suddenly understand any language in the world, why would anyone bother to learn languages?

But before you get too excited about Douglas Adams’s prophetic Babelfish from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy finally coming true, here are five reasons why – in fact – no matter how good AI gets, you will always need to learn languages.

1. It’s not just about understanding people

Learning a language is not just about being able to understand what other people are saying. The learning process is important too! Setting goals and daily streaks, and then setting up a routine and a mindset that enables you to reach and even exceed them is where the real magic is. When you learn a new language, you also learn a lot about yourself and come away with a new skillset and plenty of insights that will serve you well in whatever else you do in life.

Relying on AI translation to understand other languages is a bit like putting on one of those exercise belts while you watch TV. Sure, you might lose some weight in the short term, but you won’t get into the good habits of eating healthier and doing more exercise that you need to sustain that in the long term.

And besides, no ear pieces will give you all of these…

2. There are a gazillion reasons why learning languages is good for your brain

Every time scientists do research into the effect of learning languages on the brain, they come back with amazing results. So far they have proved that learning another language makes you smarter, gives you increased cognitive powers, and even delays the onset of dementia by 4.5 years on average. The most amazing thing about these results, is that now scientists have even proved that so many of these benefits are available to anyone who learns a language at any point in their lives, not just those who were lucky enough to be brought up bilingually.

Learning a new language is like the Olympics of sudoku. It is the best workout your brain can get. Those amazing and truly life-changing benefits that you can only get by learning a second language are not going to disappear. But if you stop using languages and start relying too much on AI and automated translation, you won’t be able to enjoy them.

3. Stumbling around a foreign country armed with just a few phrases is FUN!!!

One of the true joys of travel is trying to make yourself understood with a hilariously limited set of phrases and little else. Embrace the true comedy of smile-and-point, and go off on an adventure where your ability to express yourself is temporarily reduced to that of a 3-year-old. Read people’s body language, and try to connect with them in a way that a soulless, computerised voice being piped into your ear will never be able to match.

Besides, setting off round a market in a different country armed with your ear piece, your mobile phone and your 4G connection might sound like a great idea. But there are a couple of things that may go wrong with that, such as…

4. Pray to the gods of battery

Since the advent of mobile technology, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has never looked the same. Two fundamental bases had to be added in order to achieve all of life’s happiness: WiFi and Battery. These two highly unreliable and limited resources lie are crucial in order to reap any of the benefits of modern day technology.

While recently in Europe we’ve just got used to being able to get free data roaming when travelling within the EU, around the rest of the world using data while abroad is still an extortionate liability. Meanwhile in the UK, our chances of continuing to enjoy free data roaming so we can access services like Google Translate in 2019 and beyond look as stable as the colour of our passports…

5. AI advances are going to make learning languages easier, better and more fun than ever!

Here at Memrise we have teams of people working on Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence technology in order to make the learning experience on our courses truly amazing. Over the next few years, Memrise is going to become much more adaptive and personalised to you. We’ll be able to better understand your natural language learning ability, and judge how frequently you should be reviewing words you’ve learned based on that. We’ll also be able to take into account other languages you speak, and any other skills you have to make sure you’re getting the most streamlined and efficient course you can.

In other words, thanks to AI technology, learning a language at Memrise is going to get faster, more convenient and more relevant than it ever has been before 🙂


Alex Rawlings - Language Learner in Residence at Memrise

Alex Rawlings is Memrise’s Language Learner in Residence. He spends his time working with the Language Research Team, making fun videos about languages, and contributing to the Memrise blog. He tweets @rawlangs_alex.

In his free time he enjoys cooking, watching films, and walking his dog. He also writes books, like this one.

Interested in writing for us? Contact us here!

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