How AI Is Reshaping Foreign-Language Education

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When I was a kid, I felt hypnotized by the shelves in my best friend’s apartment. They contained, it seemed, endless volumes of Japanese-language books—including, most crucially to a child’s eye, comics such as Dragon Ball and Urusei Yatsura. I was gazing at an impossibly distant world; I wanted so badly to comprehend the stories on those pages, but translations wouldn’t be published in the United States until years later.

Those early experiences motivated my study of Japanese in high school and college. But if I were a teenager today, I might be tempted to skip over the courses altogether. Translation programs powered by AI have become extraordinarily effective. In an article published by The Atlantic this week, the journalist Louise Matsakis explores what these advanced tools may augur for foreign-language education, which is already on the decline in America and elsewhere. The story gestures toward broader issues with AI: It is certainly a technology of convenience, but convenience can sometimes mean sacrifice. “Learning a different way to speak, read, and write helps people discover new ways to see the world—experts I spoke with likened it to discovering a new way to think,” Matsakis writes. “No machine can replace such a profoundly human experience. Yet tech companies are weaving automatic translation into more and more products. As the technology becomes normalized, we may find that we’ve allowed deep human connections to be replaced by communication that’s technically proficient but ultimately hollow.”

I don’t have any meaningful recollection of using my Japanese to understand manga, but I may never forget the feeling of speaking the language with new friends when I eventually traveled to Japan after years of study. AI translation certainly has wonderful applications—“these tools are great for getting a general sense of what’s going on, like trying to figure out the basic facts of a news event in another country,” Matsakis pointed out when I asked her about all of this—but it cannot replace deep, human understanding. At least not yet.

Damon Beres, senior editor

Animation of the word "Bye!" translated into different languages
Illustration by Matteo Giuseppe Pani

The End of Foreign-Language Education

By Louise Matsakis

A few days ago, I watched a video of myself talking in perfect Chinese. I’ve been studying the language on and off for only a few years, and I’m far from fluent. But there I was, pronouncing each character flawlessly in the correct tone, just as a native speaker would. Gone were my grammar mistakes and awkward pauses, replaced by a smooth and slightly alien-sounding voice. “My favorite food is sushi,” I said—wo zui xihuan de shiwu shi shousi—with no hint of excitement or joy.

I’d created the video using software from a Los Angeles–based artificial-intelligence start-up called HeyGen. It allows users to generate deepfake videos of real people “saying” almost anything based on a single picture of their face and a script, which is paired with a synthetic voice and can be translated into more than 40 languages. By merely uploading a selfie taken on my iPhone, I was able to glimpse a level of Mandarin fluency that may elude me for the rest of my life.

Read the full article.

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Matsakis’s article reminded me of a recent story by Jeremy Klemin, which explores how AI functions in the world of literary translation. Here, machine-translation models “struggle because, at its core, literary translation is an act of approximation. The best option is sometimes not the correct one, but the least bad one.”

— Damon

The Atlantic