Michael Groves looks at translation and how technology may ultimately change the way we translate languages.
Spend any time at almost any UK university campus and it quickly becomes apparent how international they have become. Just sitting in the cafeteria, you will be able to hear languages from a number of different countries, not our geographical neighbours, but also the languages of students coming from the Asia, Africa and South America. Some of these students have grown up in a household where English is spoken, or may have been educated through an English language medium school, and therefore have an easier transition into the educational system. However, large numbers of students have to learn to speak not only English, but also the rarefied form of English used in universities– the dreaded “Academic Style”.
Almost all universities now have large centres dedicated to the teaching of “English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and these help students learn English, and hence bring them (and their fees) to the campus. One estimate puts the value of programmes such as these as $825 million for the undergraduate programme alone- without taking into account the lucrative masters market. This is clearly big business, as can be seen by the investments that private corporate providers are investing into this sector. Recent visitors to Newcastle university will have doubtless seen the striking new INTO building– built for this very purpose.
The sector, like much education these days, is deeply invested in technology. From leaning management systems, such as Moodle which are used across campus, to specific apps such as Memrise , which are focussed on language learning, digital technology is becoming an embedded part of the learning process. Of course, the adoption of this technology follows the pattern in wider society. Some adoption is enthusiastic, some is misguided, some is measured and effective, and some is grudgingly eventual.
However, there is a technology that threatens to make all of this redundant. Online translation is now free, widely available to anyone with a fast enough web connection. A few years ago, the quality was poor- but at a grammatical level, it is constantly increasing its ability to translate idiomatically and correctly. With continued improvement of this quality, It would not be hard to imagine a university where students would not need to use English at all. Lectures could be videoed and subtitled automatically with existing technology. Translation could be built into learning management systems, much like it is built into some browsers already. Students could do their reading in their own language, write in their own language and, and then it could be read and marked in the lecturers’ own language. One to one conversations with academic supervisors might be a bit stilled, with a phone doing the translation, but possibly no more stilted than with a student who has just scraped the proficiency level at a university with generously low entrance requirements.
This approach, though, would, in my opinion, be an grave mistake. There are a number of things that the translation cannot do, and is unlikely to be able to do anytime soon. It cannot, for example, take a culturally specific form of argument, and locate it in another cultural idiom. This is vital for an academic writer. Without understanding the social norms of a community (for example the scholars in her field), a writer cannot truly become part of that community.
And it would be a mistake to assume that all academic conventions apply across languages- the growing field of intercultural rhetoric continues to examine how these differences manifest themselves. And if you subscribe to the idea that university learning is what happens between the teaching, those reliant on computer translation will be missing a huge amount of the value of Higher Education.
At the same time, I am not advocating that we block this technology, or that the EAP profession refuses to engage with it. Learning a language to a level that enable engagement with Higher Education takes an enormous amount of effort and time. It is my hope that the teaching profession will be able to find a way to use this technology to help future students leap frog some of the more arduous parts of the language learning process and move more quickly to a point where they can engage meaningfully with the academic community.
However, without engagement from the teaching community, there is a real danger that a shallow understanding of the ability of online translation and the nature of what students are actually asked to do at university would lead to the scenario outlined above This in turn, could lead to a scenario where English for Academic Purposes profession is pushed aside in favour of an effective, but flawed technology – a sad loss for the university sector.