Is language acquisition a priority? – Week 68

I had hoped to make my two-day trip from Cape Town back to Brasilia (via Dubai) an unprecedented Mandarin movie marathon. Then, I got news that I have a Criminal Law exam next week. I did watch a couple of movies, but I split my time with my Law book. And when a flight delay meant we had to spent 24 hours in Dubai, I obviously made seeing the city my top priority.

Should I have made my Mandarin studies a higher priority? How important is language acquisition to me? I have been reflecting on this in light of advances in machine translation.

I picked up an Economist magazine at the Cape Town airport and read the cover article on Artificial Intelligence. It discusses how deep thought and big data are, among other things, bringing us much closer to the point where machine translation will match the quality of human translation. For years, people (especially translators) have told me this will never happen, but I’m quite sure it will. One of the more interesting and well-made points of the article is that white-collar jobs will be increasingly replaced by computers. The translation and interpreting professions have limited lifespans. You might need a few high-level professionals to tweak important documents and of course guide improvements in software, at least in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, I would not recommend my daughter consider translation a primary professional option.

So how useful is my Mandarin-learning quest? Of course, I am doing it for pleasure, for the challenge itself and the benefits to my brain, and as a pedagogical experiment. However, underlying my enjoyment and motivation is the assumption that I am acquiring a very useful skill. If learning more about forestry and government auditing work–two activities that have a significant financial impact for me–would be vastly more useful for my future, why should I invest so much time in acquiring and improving Mandarin and other languages? I won’t be surprised if within five or ten years Skype allows me to communicate seamlessly with people in all major languages (they are working hard on this), but I doubt computers will replace human judgment on audit reports, international cooperation, or managing labor to care for my tree plantation.

For now, I will continue my language acquisition project undaunted. (On the Emirates entertainment system, returning to Brazil, I finished watching Brotherhood of Blades, then watched 20 Once Again, The Golden Era, and The Crossing I. I would only recommend The Crossing. The Golden Era is well done, but too long, depressing, and unentertaining. The other two movies are well worth skipping.)

But I will keep an eye on technological advances in the field of translation and continue reflecting on the utility of language acquisition.