This is the transcript for the second English with Stephen podcast on the future of English.
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Hello there. My name is Stephen and this is English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.
A few weeks ago, I talked about the future of English and whether a different language might take over the role of the world’s language. The response was very interesting and I had quite a few other comments and questions from people about other aspects of the future of English.
At the end of that episode, I said “All of this means that I cannot see any other language other taking over the place of English in the world. This does not necessarily mean that English will continue to keep its place as the language that everyone needs to learn.”
It seems a few people were rightly intrigued as why we might not need to study English if no other language it is going to overtake it.
So after this quick break, I will try to answer that exact question.
A number of people got in touch with me by my website, EnglishwithStephen.com, or on social media. If you would like to ask me any questions, feel free to go to my site or follow me on Facebook or Instagram. You can find me on social media under the name English with Stephen. I look forward to hearing from you very soon.
So here we go with my reason for why people might not need to study English in the future.
One of my favourite books ever, well, actually, it is a book, radio play, film, computer game and a website, is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It tells the story of how one human called Arthur Dent travels around the galaxy meeting strange and interesting aliens with no money and no plan. He does have a guidebook, a towel and a Babel fish.
A babel fish is an almost magical animal that you can put in your ear, and it automatically translate everything you hear, in any language, into your language. It helps with interplanetary communication, although it does not lead to interplanetary peace, unfortunately.
It is a great book and if you can find it, I thoroughly recommend it.
I know what you are thinking. Why am I mentioning this wonderful book to you at this moment when I am supposed to be talking about the future of English?
Well, it’s because I believe that pretty soon, we will have our own version of the Babel fish.
No, we will not be putting live fish into our ears. Instead of a live animal, we will use technology to translate for us.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was originally broadcast on the radio in 1978. At that time, very few people had computers, and if they did it was in a university or office. There was no internet, no mobile phones, no Google.
In fact, it was only in April 2006, that Google started its translation service. That is only 15 years ago! In the beginning, the translations were awful. It was ok if you wanted to translate one word, but anything more than a word and it was really quite embarrassing.
15 years later, and it still isn’t perfect, by any means. However, if is a million times better than it was in the bad old days. If you have a simple, direct text, it can do a good enough job that you will be able to understand more than the basic meaning of a text.
Lots of my students use Google translate when they need to write an email or other text at work. With a little bit of care, it is a great tool to use. I have classes where I teach my students how to use Google Translate, the things to watch out for and when not to trust it. But so long as you know what to look out for, why not use it? It saves a lot of time.
Of course, Google Translate has problems with more complex texts. Especially ones with idiomatic expressions. The problem at the moment is that Google Translate cannot evaluate the translation it has created. The software does not realise if the text it has produced makes sense or not. This is still the role of the human.
However, if we think about the improvements over the last 15 years, and as computers get more and more powerful, I am sure that in 15 years in the future Google translate will be able to work with most texts in most languages. It may not be perfect, but it will be good enough for most people, most of the time.
And for a lot of people, being able to understand and produce texts is more than enough. The question a lot of people will face is, Is it worth studying English for years and years when a computer can do the 80 or 90% of the work for me. I will be studying, and spending lots of money, to do an extra 10%.
I’m sure a lot of people will say ‘no’ to that!
The problem that we will have, then, is speaking and listening. There are a few products out there that claim to be able to translate speech right now. But to be honest, they are terrible. They can just about manage ‘hello, my name’s Stephen’.
As most language learners know, speaking and listening are usually much harder than reading and writing. The problem is the amount of computer processing power that is needed to translate spoken language instantaneously. We simply do not have computers that can do it, and we definitely do not have mobile devices that we can carry with us.
However, I have been reading recently about an exciting development in computers called quantum computing. I am not going to go into the detail, but the prediction is that the processing power of quantum computers is going to be many, many times faster than conventional computers.
It is predicted that the first quantum computers might be ready in about 10 years. Initially, they will be very expensive, but the prices will come down. I imagine it will be similar to the computers we have today so that about 30 years after they are invented, they will start to be available for people to use at home and in their phones.
And then, who knows what will happen?
With the continuing advances in translating written English married to advances in quantum computing, I am sure that our very own Babel fish will not be far behind. So maybe my 10-year-old son will be one of the last generations who has to learn a language.
What do you think? Do you believe technology will replace the need to learn a language? How would you feel about that? Let me know on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com, or on my social media. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram.
I’d love to hear what your thoughts are.
That’s all from me for today. I hope to speak to you again next week.