Net gain or loss?

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Now that instant internet translation is a reality, Wilson Flood ponders the future for teachers

I believe it was the campaigner for multiculturalism Dipak Nandy, the founder of the Runnymede Trust, who said that the unforeseen consequences of change are usually more significant than those planned. We can only await with trepidation the actual outcomes of the Government's drive to harness schools to the power of the worldwide web. It is de rigueur that "hardwiring" schools will raise standards, since that is the only end of all Government initiatives, but we can also be sure that a few surprises lie in wait for unwary educators.

We could ask whether the time, effort and money spent on teaching modern languages to all in British schools is justified when the results are so awful and whether the arrival of the Internet might make things even worse. For the bad news is that the language of the web is overwhelmingly English and even members of the Academie Francaise must type www to get to French sites. The Internet is putting the final seal on English as our lingua franca, giving it the status that Latin enjoyed in medieval Europe.

The argument that there is no need to learn another language because everyone abroad speaks English is assuming greater force and obviously will affect student motivation. If English is not your first language there is really no contest as to what your second one is going to be, but if it is your first, then in Britain your choice is almost always French or German. Many reasons can be advanced for studying these languages but the real reason is that we have a lot of French and German teachers who studied those languages at school and university.

If we wish to advance economic reasons for studying languages a case could be made for some pupils to be studying Japanese or Chinese. Impossible? You can study Japanese in Australian or New Zealand schools, and teachers had to be retrained to teach it, but it happens. If your view is that the study of Chinese or Japanese should be delayed until university - because they are too difficult - you could argue the same for French or German. Learning languages could be delayed until university or sixth-form - with those who had made a commitment to study them.

Language teachers have another reason to be concerned about the web. We sometimes read of British businesses receiving an order from somewhere in Europe which they are unable to fulfil because nobody could translate the letter and reply to it. That need no longer be a problem. There is at least one website which will translate from French, German, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese into English and vice versa at no cost whatsoever. Diacritical marks, those little ticks and flicks which Europeans in general and Czechs in particular are so fond of, can be accommodated by downloading another program. Now, I am willing to bet tha word of this is circulating within the student population at whirlwind speed and I wonder if any modern language teachers have noticed a sudden improvement in written translations. All you have to do is type in the text, or scan a printed page using a scanner with optical character recognition, then click on the "Translate" button. There is the occasional stumble on idiom, but it takes away about 95 per cent of the effort of translating.

"But this is terrible," I hear you cry. "It must be stopped." It cannot; you can do nothing to prevent it, it is just beginning. You are in the same situation as the men with the red flags walking in front of the first motor cars. The babelfish of The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy could be reality within a few years. Technology is making translators redundant and will cause students to doubt the wisdom of expending so much brain power on something that a machine can do. The effect of developments like these will be to depress the general standard of language learning even further, but there may also be benefits.

As a type of educational Darwinism it may select out those who like the challenge of learning a language and raise their performance. And it does have uses - think of the benefit to small businesses. Not all language work is in print; much communication is spoken, and this can include delicate business and diplomatic negotiation; but most of that work will employ people who are essentially bilingual. For the rest of us, the ability to buy a few postcards or order a meal is as much as is needed and a lot of that can be done by pointing.

It might seem that I am belittling the efforts of language teachers. Not so - I am simply illustrating ways in which the Internet will affect one area of the curriculum. We know there are other horrors out there, for example, essays for downloading. And I also hope you have all noticed that I have not revealed the all-important website addresses because I suppose, at heart, I'm still on the side of the teachers and have no desire to make their job any harder.

And, for your further delectation, here is that last sentence in Portuguese. It took two seconds to translate by computer. E eu espero tambem que voce toda observe que eu nio revelei todos os enderecos importantes do website porque eu me suponho, no coracio, estou ainda no lado dos professores e nio tenho nenhum desejo fazer o trabalho mais duro.

Wilson Flood is an education consultant


THE TES translated the Portuguese back into English using the web site:

"I also wait that you all observes that I did not disclose to all the important addresses of the website because I assume myself, in the heart, am still in the side of the professors and I do not have no desire to make the work hardest."

So, not perfect, but free!

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