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Translation apps promote language education

Claire Alongi

Staff writer

A world map in the World Language Studio. Language-learning students study here often. Photo: Grace Shiffrin

Technology is pervasive. A few decades ago it took whole rooms to house a computer, and today they can fit inside a pocket. With this new technology, the infinite power of the internet and all that goes along with it is only a few taps away. The debate over the positives and negatives of technology is not a new one. One aspect of this ongoing argument that has become increasingly popular surrounds how technology plays into language. As apps become increasingly better at translating and communicating with the world around us, where does language learning stand? While it might be easy to take a stance one way or another–either that translator apps are the future or that learning a language by the books is the way to go–the issue is not that simple. Learning a language is certainly not something to be discarded, but translation apps aren’t the villain they might seem to be.

There are many benefits to learning more than one language. Aside from being able to communicate with different groups of people, multilingualism has been linked to increased neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to functionally change and adapt depending upon the world around you and the information you absorb). It’s also been linked to gray matter growth, according to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology and Information. Willamette University Spanish Professor Maria Blanco-Arnejo sees learning a language and learning about a country’s culture as being entwined. Blanco-Arnejo grew up speaking Spanish and Galego, and picked up Porteguese, French, Italian and English throughout her life. When she’s teaching she refuses to use apps of any kind, even if she’s forgotten the translation of a particular word. However, she doesn’t think that translation apps are the enemy of language learning.

“Even [translation] apps are really good because they take the fear away from people that travel. They say well at least I have this. Like if I’m in a train station trying to find my train I can do it. And there is still some learning […] I will plug in my sentence and then I will say ‘oh look at that, that’s what it looks like’. And then I might play with it to see how it changes,” Blanco-Arnejo said.

She pointed out that while English may be widely spoken, lots of languages are not. For people that speak a more uncommon language, translation apps can be the gateway to travel because they expose people to different dialects and expand access to other cultures. She reflected on how translation apps might have impacted her own travel when she was in college.

“If I’d had those apps back then I would have talked to people a lot more than I did. Beyond [the languages I spoke] I was very insecure,” she said.

While Blanco-Arnejo was thinking of world traveling with translation apps in the hypothetical, I can confirm that it does have the ability to transform a globe-trotting experience. I spent about half of this past summer in Rome, Italy taking classes. As Blanco-Arnejo pointed out, English is a fairly prevalent language even abroad, and Italy was no exception (at least in the bigger cities). But when it came down to navigating public transportation and figuring out whether the bottle in your hand was body wash, conditioner, or shampoo, translation apps were a life saver. After looking up a word a few times, it helped certain words stick in my brain. The key is to think of translation apps like a little pool floatie. You use them when you’re learning how to swim, and eventually you won’t need them at all.

Perhaps it’s not that translation apps are the enemy of language learning, but instead a useful tool used to promote education and foster connections across the globe.

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