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When The Universal Translators Come…

The day may well come when machines make learning languages unnecessary…irrelevant. Universal translators, just like in Star Trek. The ultimate American linguistic dream: everyone speaking the same language 😛 .

That day may well come.

So should you stop learning the language you’re learning.?


But, for heaven’s sake, do stop learning it the wrong way: the boring way. No good will come of it. Literally.

In time, technology may advance to the point that learning other languages is unnecessary. But your time and mine will not have been in vain, will not have been wasted…iff…if and only if, you enjoy yourself now.

Have fun. Do things the right way: the fun way. Not just because it works (which it does), not just because it’s effective (which it is), but because it may well be the only way of doing things that is even worthwhile.

There may ultimately be no future in which to be gratified (TBH I’m betting there will be, but still…for the sake of argument…), no glorious destination worth reaching — so the only benefit of learning a language could be the benefit you’re extracting from it right now, my friend.

Time. The stuff of life. Yours will not have been wasted if you had fun.

Says Momoko: “what would Anglos say of  Spanish speakers living in America who said: ‘Yeah, I’m not learning any English because I’m waiting on universal translators to arrive. Google, dude. Google.'”?

Anyway 😛 .


  26 comments for “When The Universal Translators Come…

  1. Kazuki
    April 19, 2011 at 01:22

    That will be an unfortunate time since English is not always the best language to convey an idea in. What a boring world we would live in, hopefully I will not live to see it in this or my next x number of reincarnations.

  2. Chagami
    April 19, 2011 at 03:26

    Hey Khatz, can you put some margin-bottom on your countdown timer’s div?

    …it’s kinda distracting when reading the article 🙂

  3. Skeen
    April 19, 2011 at 05:16

    I was actually talking with someone about this the other day, and one of the things we talked about was that in some cases, such as business with foreign countries such as China and Japan, knowing the language of the person you are engaging in business with would still give you an edge. A business man from China might be more inclined to do business with a foreigner who’s dedication to his work can be seen through the effort they put in to learning Chinese. In short its respectable, and it shows your serious and invested in your business. This is what businessmen in places like China like to see.

    • khatzumoto
      April 19, 2011 at 10:46

      >knowing the language of the person you are engaging in business with would still give you an edge

      Definitely. For a long time, there would be a two-tier system, the “naturals” and the UT users. Also, a UT, at least early on, would act more like an interpreter than anything else, so you would have to finish your sentence before it got to work, and that would be slow.

      Assuming limited AI/inferencing, naturals would also delight in inventing slang and other wordplay faster than the UT was able to keep up.

  4. Onsokumaru
    April 19, 2011 at 07:29

    Man I have no idea how to learn “the fun way”. I just don’t see how that’s possible, especially at the beginning stages.

    • cloudhand
      April 19, 2011 at 08:04

      I agree. Everything can be made fun, but it seems as if, in the beginning, we’re told to just shove Heisig down our throats.

    • Chagami
      April 19, 2011 at 08:12

      Which language are you trying to learn?

      I think that regardless of your answer, it’s kind of apparent that you’ve yet to fully set up your immersion environment. Once you have that down (and maybe it’s the hardest part of learning a language) you’ll find your question a little humourous.

      Perhaps there is no fun way to learn a language, but there certainly are many fun things to do in one.

      Seeing how you’re posting stuff and surfing the web, can I assume you enjoy being on the computer? I’m sure you do! So, put your OS in your target language and bam! Target language + fun (your computer) = “The Fun Way”.

      • Onsokumaru
        April 19, 2011 at 08:48

        I’m learning Japanese, currently in the middle of learning radicals to make Kanji a bit easier. I mean, I understand the concept of “The fun way” but I just don’t see how its possible in early stages of learning.

        If I switch my OS to Japanese (Which I’ve been debating on doing) wont it be way out of my league since I’m not too yet experienced to get a handle on it? Or is that much immersion important regardless of where you are?

        • Chagami
          April 19, 2011 at 10:58

          After reviewing your handle, I probably should have guessed Japanese 😛

          When you were a baby/toddler, you had learned your first language through immersion. You were able to do it then, so you should also be able to do it now. No one is expecting you to grasp (or perhaps even understand at all) what you’re hearing/reading. In the beginning, you do in fact know nothing, but you have to start somewhere.

          Now, when it comes to your computer, it’s actually fairly easy to switch over to Japanese. I find that *a lot* of system menus use katakana, so it isn’t much of a stretch. Also, you’d be surprised by how many little things you have memorized anyway.

          Do you like anime? It’s fun to watch, right? Well why not watch it raw? Maybe not understanding anything would make things boring, but that’s why you should turn to anime you already have watched.

          ..or even Japanese dubs of things you’ve already seen in English. Do you like The Lord of the Rings? Well I challenge you to hear Gollum say in his creepy voice “itoshii” and not understand that he means “precious”.

          I understand where you are coming from; I was in your same situation only a few months ago, but believe me, it gets better and fast.

          Don’t worry, we’re all in it together, and as long as we try, we’ll all be able to make it 🙂

        • Han
          April 19, 2011 at 17:38

          I switched my OS to Russian despite not having the vocab. You’d be surprised at just how quickly you get used to where things are – you should be able to remember what options did what, even if you can’t remember the Japanese just yet.

    • ダンちゃん
      April 19, 2011 at 10:54

      I think this depends on what you mean by fun. I only started AJATTing well on my Japanese journey, but I’ve been applying many of the basic principles to Mandarin and it is certainly more ‘fun’ this time around.

      If you are looking for basic learning of Kanji etc => watching Seinfeld on TV then you are sure to be disappointed. If, however, you are happy with it being stimulating/interesting (even if mildly), then we are good to go. The problem here is that many people associate the words ‘learning’ and or ‘study’ with pain. Hence they can run miles away from knowledge that is classified in this traditional way, while meanwhile becoming world experts on something they allow themselves just to enjoy, like the makes and models of race cars. Don’t associate Kanji with ‘study’ or ‘learning’ then. Try and find a way to make them an interesting puzzle to you, or a mystery. Above all keep it light. Once it starts to feel like you are grinding, take a break. Do it in little bursts here and there.


  5. April 19, 2011 at 08:10

    In addition to being a kick in the pants, learning another language is also supremely good for the brain. Using a Universal Translator will be the equivalent of taking the escalator instead of the stairs…

    • 白文泰
      April 19, 2011 at 17:31

      I always take the stairs…
      Also, folks, learning languages takes a lot of time, but that’s part of the fun.
      Just find ways to play games.
      Although Heisig’s might seem like a chore, I think it’s awesome.
      I began learning Chinese first through a special, intense school,
      and the way they taught us to learn all of the characters is to just learn them…
      It’s like that African way post, just do it. If you want to learn the characters one at a time while you learn the sentences, just do it.
      If you don’t like something, change it. I remember something from a post that Khatz said before, if you don’t like it, then change it. If it doesn’t work for you, then fix it.
      However, no one is going to learn this language for you. And I don’t believe that universal translators will ever be able to replace really learning a language, just like translations are unable to really completely interpret the original meaning.
      If you don’t believe me, then get good at Chinese and watch 三国演义 or 西游记. Or you can read 阿城小说 or some 老子/孔子. I promise you, it feels TOTALLY different.

      And it’s an addiction, the more you do it, the more you want it. That’s why many people who learn a language really well learn other ones…it’s fun…..

  6. simon
    April 19, 2011 at 14:59

    Unless you are talking about some implant that changes our actual thinking and speech in some way, I doubt universal translators will ever be fully effective no matter how great the technology because there are so many idioms, slangs, colloquialisms and unique ways of communication in each language that are pretty much untranslatable unless one is ok with losing all the interesting bits in the language. Some languages are so far apart construction-wise as to be completely untranslatable unless the sentence is totally rebuilt in the target language….And I’m not so hot on watching someone’s lips move while a mismatched sound plays in my head…

    • Megan
      April 19, 2011 at 21:18

      I’m thinking direct implant so that we HEAR them speaking in the language, but instead of it being translated into our L1, it goes directly into the image part of our brain and we understand it not through words but through feelings, images, etc.

      • Areckx
        April 24, 2011 at 05:32

        like the Hive Queen…

  7. Erik
    April 19, 2011 at 23:47

    I think you mean “where” not “wear”…as in clothes. Sorry, nitpicking.

  8. April 21, 2011 at 08:38

    I see what you’re saying: when language learning becomes unnecessary, then the only reason left to do it is for fun, because you enjoy it, and if that’s the best motivator, the best reason to do it, then you might as well do it that way right now. And I completely agree: if you’re not having fun doing what you’re doing right now, then eventually you’re going to get burned out, making it enjoyable is the only way to ensure that you’ll still be doing it 6 months from now, that you’ll have the consistency that is ABSOLUTELY necessary to truly learn a foreign language.

    Word, bro, word 😉


  9. ライトニング
    April 21, 2011 at 08:59

    I cannot stand my science teacher.

    Today, all the spanish class students had to go the whole day only using spanish. This already made my day worse seeing how my school forces output. (This is only their 2nd year learning in classes.)

    Then in science class, some girl saw me taking notes in pseudo-japanese (didn’t khatz talk about something like this?) And she was all like “wtf are you doing?”

    My teacher walks over and essentially says the same thing. (I try to keep my japanese immersion on the down-low with school seeing how everybody is too immature and judgmental at my school)

    Then somehow we got into a talk about languages since the spanish kids are being forced to output for the whole day.

    It ended up talking about which languages to learn and the teacher brought up how difficult japanese and chinese are to learn.

    “They have to learn all these characters and blah blah and grammar is difficult blah blah blah”

    While the chinese kids are feeling great about themselves because they are essentially being praised on how they know such a “hard” language.

    At this point i just felt like exploding, like she knows how hard a language is to learn when she hasn’t even attempted. Besides, nothing is hard if it’s fun.

    I also do not see why some of my chinese friends drifted away from me after i told them about what i’ve been doing for the past couple months.

    • ブライアン
      April 21, 2011 at 12:39

      Word of advice from a product of the US Educational System: don’t bother arguing your points in school. Do what you want, stand your ground if they try to *stop* you, but it’s not worth the stress to argue with people who don’t want to be there and aren’t willing to change their minds. Not your job.

    • 魔法少女☆かなたん
      April 21, 2011 at 21:38

      Don’t feel like exploding.

      If you’re here, you probably already know how to use an SRS, so use it to help get good grades and leave everyone else behind in the dust. And use your knowledge of Chinese characters to show that you can learn a “hard” language, and therefore impress the ignorant masses with your mad lurnin skillz.

      Be the very best, like no one ever was.

    • Jim
      April 26, 2011 at 09:57

      Ah, glad to hear that I’m not the only person whose learning is being impeded by my classmates. Aside from a few friends that are learning Japanese with me (actually, a more correct thing to say is that they all are trying, but none will succeed, sadly… poor blokes), everyone opposes me at school. It’s ridiculous.

      I pretty much have to hide all things related to Japanese or risk getting ridiculed by everyone. All I hear is, “stop learning Japanese dude, it’s retarded, dude, you’re a weaboooooo.” Now, I personally stopped caring what other people say/think around 7th grade, but it’s still a nuisance.

  10. Japtower
    April 22, 2011 at 08:42

    Don’t feel like exploding… simply maintain that minimum possible immersion, could it be as minimal as repeating new words of the day in your head when you can’t have your earphones on (your thoughts are free when your actions aren’t), and leave them on their “intelligent” and “scientifically correct” ideas, after all, life is too short to let it be affected by such people. Few years from now, they will feel like exploding when you will reach fluency 😀

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  12. 蘭妮
    April 25, 2011 at 15:25

    The day might come where machines can help megacorporations and governments come to agreements across language barriers–god knows enough of my classmates (linguistics) are working on solving that problem–but until everybody has one in their pocket and they’re so unobtrusive that you can actually chat and make friends and have relationships through them, I’m pretty sure people are still going to be learning languages.

  13. Jake
    October 7, 2011 at 15:28

    I think it’s cool to think a universal translator is someday possible, and believe me, I think they definitely would have their place. However, I don’t think such an invention will ever stop people learning languages, and nor should it. A translator would be useful in some instances, but I can’t see people preferring to talk through a machine to people versus having a real conversation. Obviously, no one wants to/can learn every language. This is when it would come in handy, when you need to spit out a sentence or two to someone with whom you do not share a common language.

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