words:: Carmen Kuntz
Communication is complex. Travel, work, love—people begin learning a new language for various reasons. Communicating and navigating in a foreign country likely tops the list for many. As a unilingual Canadian who fell in love and moved to Slovenia, I stumble through everyday interactions, shy, stressed and embarrassed by my feeble attempts to communicate.
Except when beer is involved. I can confidently order a beer, curse like a local, then order another one. A beer-loosened tongue is a great language learning tool, but completely useless at the grocery store, bank or post office. My Slovenian boyfriend speaks fluent English, but the language barrier is still a daily obstacle.
Of course, there’s an app for that and my cell phone—packed with digital translation technologies—is never far from reach, but I seldom pull it out. Looking down at my phone kills the flow of any interaction (similar to leafing through the paperback language dictionaries of yore), and by the time I repeat the sentence appearing on screen, my counterpart has usually switched to English.
For reading and writing however, the quality and speed of language technology has evolved so much, the apps can practically speak for us, pumping out accurate translations from photos, audio and text. While immensely helpful, such tools have also made me lazy. My food-related vocabulary is quite strong, but I still hover my phone over menus to read the live translations appearing on screen. For personal interactions from afar, messaging apps can copy/paste/translate in real time, meaning technology has almost replaced the need to learn a language at all.
Except, of course, for face-to-face public interaction (aka: most of your life when you are in a new country). “Speak to each other!” says Kate Turner, head instructor and manager of International House Whistler, a private English language school. She has always encouraged talk over tech. “In my opinion and experience nothing beats face-to-face interaction. We are all here to learn how to speak, so let’s do it.”
That personal, localized connection of learning small talk, swear words and slang can’t be replaced by technology. And according to Turner there are few better places for language learning than on a chairlift.
“You are stuck on this lift with someone for five minutes or so, and as long you keep your phone in your pocket you are kind of forced to talk,” she says. “My students are always amazed that people want to talk to them on the lifts. They come into class super excited after a chairlift chat.”
Technology can create a bridge over the language barrier, but it can’t totally break it down (yet). Only real, human interactions can do that. Memorizing vocab, sentence and grammar on a phone is cool, but practicing with a local enriches the experience and helps the lesson stick.
Language connects us. And while real-time translation earbuds are already on the market, technology still hasn’t found a way to replace eye contact or the warmth and humour of fumbling through haphazard verbal communication. Getting lost in a new language, that’s the richest way to learn—where mistakes and mispronunciations lead to laughter, or in my case, love: two universal languages. —ML