We May Have To Rethink Foreign-language Classes


In an essay at the Atlantic, Louise Matsakis laments what appears to be a swift decline in the study of foreign languages in school. Enrollment in such courses is down a remarkable 29% since 2009 at American colleges, she notes, citing stats from the Modern Language Association.

Similar declines are evident in other countries. Multiple factors are no doubt in play, but what’s not in dispute is that this is happening as automatic translation powered by artificial intelligence becomes the norm across the internet.

“Within a few years, AI translation may become so commonplace and frictionless that billions of people take for granted the fact that the emails they receive, videos they watch, and albums they listen to were originally produced in a language other than their native one,” writes Matsakis.

It stands to reason, then, that more people might think it’s unnecessary to learn a new language when an app can handle the work in real time. The problem is that “something enormous will be lost in exchange for that convenience,” writes Matsakis.

Learning a foreign language is more than conjugating verbs and memorizing words—it’s about understanding nuances and even seeing the world differently. “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.”

Instead of ditching foreign-language classes, schools should rethink them. Concede the technical proficiency on grammar to the apps and focus instead on helping students develop “cultural competency” so they can truly understand the new language they’re using.

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