Monday, June 22, 2020

Linguistics and Learning in the Digital Age by Ofer Tirosh

The recent COVID-19 global pandemic has forced even many traditional educational institutions to move to online learning environments. An exceedingly large number of people seem to be moving online in order to pursue language studies. In fact, this practice of online learning has become so common that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has devoted an entire web page to provide a comprehensive resource for online learning options.

Before starting your journey to learning languages online, it is important to know what your particular challenges will be, what the benefits of online learning are, and perhaps most importantly of all, determining which languages are best to learn and what you have in mind to do with your new language skills.

On that note, language skills, whether from online learning courses or from a more traditional educational institution, can also offer you a great many benefits, both mentally and financially. Thus, you need to first determine which languages you want to learn online and how that will offer you a real and tangible benefit.

1.1 Selecting Which Languages for Online Learning

The coronavirus crisis has pushed online learning to new levels of popularity stemming from necessity. It should be noted, however, that the global Covid-19 pandemic will not last forever. Online learning, however, is revolutionizing learning norms, but should also provide a direct and tangible benefit. This means that the time spent learning languages online should focus on language skills that can be used in practical application at the same time.  Revolutionizing learning norms only becomes a good thing when online learning has real-world uses, ideally in the post-COVID-19 pandemic world.

One of the best ways to determine which languages are best to study, are those languages which you have an actual occasion to use from time to time. In the Canadian province of Quebec, it may be ideal to learn both English and French. In parts of the US, there are many large cities with large ethnic minorities and locations where Spanish, Chinese (or Putonghua) may be beneficial and a language skill that you can use in real-life scenarios.

In parts of Europe, it is fairly common for some people to grow up speaking numerous languages based on the proximity of their neighbours and the European border policies. Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis, self-isolating, social distancing and even full quarantine measures in some places around the world make learning within those communities virtually impossible.

Without the ability to translate those lessons into common practice, even a comprehensive language vocabulary may not help you to actually learn to speak in a manner that people will understand. Fortunately, it is very possible to find a great many online communities where you can practice your new language skills online, in the form of reading and writing and in terms of verbal communications.

This will be important as virtually every language in existence has been localized to some degree. Localization is the means by which you can communicate to the local people on a local level with a better understanding of what is being discussed. Not many people will ever talk to you about translating English to English or translating Portuguese to Portuguese but the fact remains that the need to interpret the local language variations is an important part of language learning online or anywhere else.

1.2 Localization and Language Online Learning

Local vernacular, colloquialisms and expressions are going to be different even among common speakers of the same language within a single nation. When languages cross physical borders, they tend to go through a process known as localization, even when they are largely isolated and not subject to the integration of words from other languages.

If you are from the United States, you may drink a soda or a cola, or you may even drink a pop, though such a suggestion would raise a fuss in some locations as there, a pop may be the father of someone rather than a refreshing beverage. Likewise in the United States, the ground floor and first floor of a building are interchangeable terms. In other areas where English is still the native language, the first floor is the one above the ground floor.

Imagine translating a document for a friend or worse still perhaps, a paying client, and you send all of their friends or customers to the wrong location? It would not take long before you developed a bad reputation with such mistakes. If however, you want to build up your reputation as a professional translator or interpreter, you need to focus on localization strategies for language learning.

It will be necessary for you to place an emphasis on your reason for learning new language skills. Are you learning so that you can communicate better when you travel? Will you need to be more able to effectively communicate with co-workers or others within the local community? Are you hoping to become a translator or even a certified interpreter?

Thus, you can focus on the different avenues of approach for mastering your language skills. Should you focus on learning more industry-specific language or should you focus more on language skills that will help you to get around in a new location?

Determining which language skills you will need first determines how much you will use the language skills, and how much you ultimately benefit from learning a new language online. Once these determinations have been made, it is necessary for you to begin focusing on exactly how to get started on your linguistic journey.

1.3 Online Learning – Language Basics Online

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These are the basic questions that any author must address in their writing because they are the basic structure of any and all conversation. Conversations, with some social exceptions, are little more than an exchange of information regarding at least one of these matters.

Learning these basic forms of speech will help you to better understand and interpret what is being said, without having to have an extensive vocabulary from day one. Who do you need to speak with? What are you going to learn? When will you begin your journey? Where will your language studies lead you? Why should you start with the basics? How do you find people to help you?

Add to this most basic form of conversational language studies by beginning to learn more common conversational forms of the language. Where is the bus station? Where can I find an interpreter? Coming and going are common habits?

Fill in these basic conversations with additional nouns and verbs as you go along, learning first, just the basic language skills that you need to get by and adding to them at a more natural and comfortable pace. You can also begin actively chatting with other people in the new language.

You will probably find some people who are more than willing to assist you to interpret and learn more about what is being said. This is especially true if you already have something in common with them to begin with.

There are all sorts of chat rooms with audio chat where you can engage in active conversation with your new language skills, though that may not always be the best option. While it may be open to debate, you may even be able to find sponsors online who can help you not only to learn a new language but who may even be persuaded to sponsor your online language studies at the same time.

Live streaming is common on YouTube for the video influencer market, and very popular on many gaming platforms. However, live streaming is now used by a great many people online in order to attract followers, like-minded people and compatriots in all sorts of online activities.

Not only is it possible to find people to help you translate all of your language studies into more of a mastery of that language, but most of these live streaming websites also have the option for people to financially support your studies via Patreon or other similar donation platforms.

Does that mean you are going to get rich learning languages online? Probably not, but there are people getting sponsored for far more bizarre and unlikely endeavours besides education, so in theory at least, it does remain a distinct possibility. Even if you do not get rich, however, there are a great many personal benefits to language learning online.

1.4 Translating the Benefits of Language into Real World Success

There are a great many added benefits of learning a second language that can also translate into very real-world success stories. These benefits run the full spectrum from mental benefits to financial success. Penn State University has put together a more comprehensive list of the benefits in regards to cognitive abilities and mental benefits, though there are other benefits to language learning as well.

People who are bilingual, multilingual or even panlingual are more likely to stand out when it comes to job applications and successfully getting that dream job. This will be especially true if you have done your homework regarding the best languages to learn and worked on learning a language that you can use within the local community.

People who have learned two or more languages tend to have a better cultural understanding and emotional connection with those around them, again making them easier to work with, live with and to be around in general. These are all attributes that are not only beneficial in a work environment, but also in social settings as well.

People who are bilingual or multilingual tend to have better reasoning skills as well. The constant mental practice in the early stages of learning a language generally involves a great many mental translations, forcing people to think about everything before they actually speak their mind. The end result seems to be a better sense of reasoning, at least according to the experts at Penn State among many others.

People who learn two or more languages tend to show an increased capacity for memory retention. Again, these studies have been conducted by numerous universities in addition to some private institutions. An enhanced memory tends to improve virtually every aspect of your life, no matter what you are doing.

All that is left, is figuring out how to put the finishing touches on your multilingual mastery and maybe even increase your income working as a professional language service provider.

1.5 Translating Language Learning into Linguistic Mastery

As you grow more comfortable with your new language skills you may be tempted to start spreading your wings (metaphorically speaking of course) and you should. The secret is to know your personal limitations and to not put yourself into any position that will cause you to develop a bad reputation.

On the other hand, there are also tools out there that can help to ensure your success and allow you to embark on a potentially profitable adventure. Starting with basic skills, it may be necessary to utilize some of these machine translation apps or even computer-assisted translations or CAT tools.

However, rest assured that these will certainly not do all of the work for you, but they should help you to recognize more about grammar and what is right and wrong with those machine translations. To date, there is not a single machine translation tool or other language assistance device that can pass the Turing test. This means that you will still earn your paycheck, but you can also earn while you learn.

The Turing Test goes back to WWII and the work of Alan Turing, who questioned whether machines would ever be able to match the intellect and the more subtle and nuanced nature of humanity. There are some chatbots that have come close, but none have ever yet passed the Turing test, fooling people into believing that a machine was in fact human.

Even the great Google Translate has a spot for humans to intervene and improve translations, which is a good place to begin, but your work there will be free. If you prefer starting your work as a language service provider in paid venues, video and audio transcription are a good place to start.

However, it is important to review the material before applying for the job, and ensure that there is not too much there that you have no idea about. So why start with audio and video transcription services instead of doing what seem to be simpler document translations?

If all you really want to learn is how to read and write, document translation services may be a better place for you to begin mastering a new language. If however, you are seeking to have a better understanding of localization in regards to dialects and speech, the transcription services will force you to listen carefully to fully understand everything that is being said.

Once you have mastered the art of language transcription, it should be easy to add document translation services to your Curricula Vitae as well. While it may take you a while to become proficient enough to become a certified interpreter, at least you will have the option to earn while you learn and master your new found language skills.

Ofer Tirosh is the CEO of Tomedes. He is an author who focuses on linguistics and the importance of foreign language in globalization and localization.