Parlez-vous Franais? Never mind, Skype does

29th August 2014 at 01:00

I have just seen my professional coffin. Skype, which is owned by Microsoft, will soon be launching a real-time translator that enables users to have a conversation with someone speaking a foreign language; their words are instantly understandable via the wonder of modern technology.

In the demonstration I watched, one person spoke German and the other English. There was only a short pause between sentences and, apparently, the translation was accurate.

Thus, my low spirits sunk to new depths. Being a modern foreign languages teacher these days is often soul-destroying, and we rely on the few students who show an interest to keep our spirits up.

There have always been children in our classes who maintain that they are never going to visit France or Germany, so they cannot see the point of acquiring the necessary language skills. Spain is a possibility but the pupils know very well that they can have a great time there without speaking a word of Spanish.

For years I have extolled the virtues of visiting non-tourist areas and exploring cultures, but to little avail. And as for foreign exchange trips, you would think I was inviting the children to Mongolia, not Brittany.

I did, for a time, teach in an independent school where parents were likely to rent a house in the Dordogne or Andaluca in the summer. These parents liked to be able to order meals in restaurants in the lingo. Their offspring would follow suit but knew it wasn't really necessary to get their dinner.

Of course, I want it both ways. When I go on holiday to Greece or Egypt or Eastern Europe, I assume that staff in hotels and shops will speak English. I travel to Denmark a lot and I used to ask bus drivers if they spoke English. Now I just get on and ask for my ticket.

What is the answer? I honestly don't know. Will the idea of foreign languages soon be history? It is not unlikely that English will prevail. We shall be in remotest Russia, talking into our smartphones and being understood.

The writer is an MFL teacher based in the West of England

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