Why Not Both?

Every day we’re invited to choose sides on all sorts of issues. Some are trivial while others can have a major impact on our lives.

Sometimes we don’t have to choose at all.

When Python programming overtook French as the most widely taught language in British primary schools, a survey by Ocado Technology indicated that three out of five parents and three out of four children wanted to learn Python coding instead of the language of Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir.

On one hand it’s good to see children taking an early interest in information technology. On the other it will be deeply unfortunate if this comes at the expense of an interest in learning a second language.

Parents who encourage their children to learn technical skills which can only enhance their future employability should be applauded. But turning our backs on language learning shuts down a world of opportunity. Because French isn’t only the language of Proust and de Beauvoir. It’s also a language of employment and commerce.

Talented, tech-savvy graduates pursuing a career in the aerospace industry may well have their heads turned by Airbus, a company with a $60 billion turnover and 134,000 staff worldwide. With a head office in Toulouse, which language do you think might benefit you as you rise up that particular ladder? The energy sector is vital to almost all developed economies. Total Oil’s staff count numbers over 100,000, its turnover is over $200 billion and with a Paris headquarters, which European language do you think might serve you well at the fourth largest oil company in the world? Iconic brands such as Chanel and L’Oréal offer similar stories, and English speaking schoolchildren and their parents would do well to listen. In parts of mainland Europe, children of primary school age will be on the way to fluency not only in a second language but a third.

Making computer science a mandatory subject might gain short term traction with schoolchildren, but what if they lose interest and abandon the subject when given that option? Interestingly, learning a second language may help counteract that.

A 2012 study at Lund University in Sweden revealed that learning languages trains our brains, actually causing parts of the cerebral cortex to grow. Students introduced to new languages find that their ability to absorb and retain information is enhanced in ways that general education can’t achieve. Language learning doesn’t just make you more employable, it makes you more receptive to new information and better able to retain it. It can capture and preserve the inquisitiveness of young people and enable them to put it to good use in, for example, information technology.

The alliance of multilingual communication and ground-breaking technology has never been more fruitful than it is today. Natural Language Processing – the process that aids computers in understanding human language – applies algorithms to identify language rules and “teach” these rules to computers. XTM International has refined this process with the development of Inter-language Vector Space (ILVS). ILVS indicates the approximate closeness between source and target words within a language segment, offering a precise view of the accuracy of a machine translation. It mirrors the linguistic problem-solving of the human brain on a macro-level, analysing similarities between words across over 30,000 language pairs and drawing on vast amounts of online data, without ever undervaluing the role of linguists and project managers in the overall translation process. It combines the best of technology with the best of human ingenuity. It works.

IT or languages? Master technology or speak to the world?

The only thing we should be rejecting here is the idea of choosing between them. Both paths lead to a place that’s worth reaching, and they intersect in fascinating and helpful ways. IT or languages? Why not both?