One of the great examples of not keeping up with the changing times is the buggy whip industry. Used often in business courses, the story is that in the early 1900s the fledgling automobile industry was just beginning to expand. Buggy whip manufacturers, however, were still making products to be used by horse-drawn carriages or buggies. Those manufacturers who were able to adapt survived and continued to manufacturer other products. Those that didn’t, were phased out and went bankrupt. The moral is clear: stay attuned to changes in the business environment or pay the penalty and lose.
For those readers who are English teachers here in Korea, the lessons learned by the buggy whip factories might well be kept in mind. To ignore changing technology is to risk having the teaching opportunities dwindle and salaries lowered. In the past, we’ve written about Korea’s efforts to introduce robots into the classroom. (See here, here and here). In the two years since those articles came out, robots haven’t made much headway in teaching English. But technology sometimes moves quickly. It could still happen. One problem, however, with that approach is that a significant amount of hardware is required to build and deploy them as well expertise as maintain and keep them working.
But today, a new technology is being unleashed on the world that might change things dramatically. It’s not a robot, or even a device that requires specific, special purpose hardware. Nor is it even a teaching device that is designed to change the way teaching works. This new technology obviates the need for teaching altogether. A speaker need not even learn a new language to communicate effectively with someone in another language. What is this new English teacher killing technology? A real-time language translator.
Japan’s largest mobile network, NTT Docomo, is rolling out a new app for Japanese phone callers. While speaking their own language, Japanese callers can communicate with speakers in English, Mandarin and Korea. Other languages are scheduled to follow soon. When speaking, a slight pause is followed by translated speech and even a text readout. While the makers admit their translations are not perfect, and in some instances this technology would not be appropriate (emergency situations are likely candidates to retain humans) there is no doubt that with this type of technology deployed in in business, classrooms or tourist destinations that the number of specially trained translators would be reduced.
Japan’s current solution is limited to subscribers on NTT’s network. But migrating to other platforms seems rather trivial. Most of us already have translation apps on our smart phones as well as voice recognition apps. It’s only a matter of time before a combination of these two apps creates real time translation that can be taken anywhere. It’s probably not a very great stretch of the imagination to believe that smart phones will all contain this type of technology at some point, perhaps quite soon.
Imagine having this app in a multilingual business meeting and being able to speak and listen in your own language without a translator. How many students would continue to spend time in classes learning a language if a tool could do it for you? What about travelling for pleasure? Would being able to speak into a device and have your speech immediately translated into the language of the host country reduce the need for teachers or the desire for students to learn?
I don’t think anyone needs to find a new job tomorrow because of Japan’s announcement. Nor do I believe that computerized solutions will ever completely supplant learning new languages. But it’s certainly something to bear in mind, especially those with long term designs on ESL jobs. To ignore technology in this field is to put your own career in peril.
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