In three words . . . uh, yeah, kinda. Foreign language learning is quickly moving into the realm of the unnecessary. So like it or not, we can all cross interpreter and translator off our list of career choices, along with elevator operator, taxi driver, doorman, cashier, bank teller, and Latin scholar.
Reading the Japanese Menu
About twelve years ago, I was lined up for a Japanese restaurant. A couple of rather attractive young ladies in short skirts were standing in front of me, and when the proprietor greeted them, they asked “Do you have an English menu?”
“No we don’t,” he replied, in what I thought was surprisingly good English. He offered no further solutions.
The women, whom I assume were Taiwanese or Chinese, looked crushed. They’d been waiting for a good twenty minutes. I considered offering to help, like “Evening, ladies. My name is Ken Seeroi, and please allow me to be of assistance, as I can read Japanese. Why don’t you join me for a delightful dinner?” But then I looked at my girlfriend and thought better of it. Plus, a Japanese menu isn’t an accident. Restaurants don’t provide English menus specifically to avoid having their calm neighborhood establishments overrun by hordes of, you know, “foreigners.” You people, with your loud talking and funny smells. Yeah, and the KKK World Headquarters probably doesn’t hang out a big sign saying “Blacks Welcome” either. Though it might increase their membership. Anyway the young ladies turned and disappeared into the night. It still brings a tiny tear to the corner of my eye, but miniskirts will do that.
Read Japanese Instantly
Those days are gone. Now everyone with a smartphone can fire up Google Translate, snap a picture of Japanese text, and within one second have a grasp of what’s written. Is it perfect? No, it’s pretty awful, but it’ll tell you the difference between a live squid and a basket of fried chicken. Although “buffalo wings” will likely always be a challenge, I’ll give you that.
So the other day, I read an article about electrical stimulation improving memory by 15%, and I was like, Whoa, you mean all those years I spent studying kanji and vocabulary…Man, I’d wear a Pastafarian colander with jumper cables if it meant getting 300 out of 2000 kanji basically for free.
The Future of Language Learning
And just when I’m reading about Skype doing real-time Japanese translation, I come across this. You stuff these uncomfortable Mr. Spock-looking things into your ears and suddenly you can comprehend—holy balls—37 languages. What’s next—understanding women? Anyway, great. I’m so happy I spent fourteen years learning Japanese. How long will it be before Google Glass just renders every billboard and flier into English? When visitors to Japan will be able to look around and say, “See that sign over there? The one that says ‘Starbucks’? Yeah, that’s a Starbucks. And across the street? Now I know it’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and next door, a Domino’s Pizza.” Oh, the future is bright indeed.
But here’s the only problem with predicting stuff: time. You don’t know when it’s going to happen. Will we have self-driving cars and robot bartenders in the future? Probably. But does that mean I have to wait five years or fifty before Tesla drives me home while mixing up a batch of frozen margaritas? I’ve no idea. Everyday I wake up and look outside. Nope. Still no Tesla. But I’m sure of this—barring mankind blowing itself into tiny pieces (another distinct possibility), technology will continue to improve by leaps and bounds. Hell, I still remember typewriters. So I don’t know if it takes AI or quantum computing or just wiring up a bunch of TiVo’s in series, but I’m 100% certain that computers will be able to translate and interpret better than humans. It’s just a matter of when.
Reading Japanese Email
Even today, here’s me at work: Oh boy, a long Japanese email. Okay, let’s read this.
Dear something something,
Thank you for something always something our company. We would like to something and something and require your immediate something.
Okay, Ken, you can do this, let’s work through the kanji…so the first character pair is “Worship” plus “Disclose,” and somehow together that means “Dear Sir or madam.” Wonder why that is? Japanese sure is…ah fuck it, let’s just cut and paste the whole thing into Google Translate. And instantly I know it’s some promotional fluff I can delete and get on to the other hundred Japanese emails in my Inbox.
On my first trip to Tokyo, I packed a bunch of maps and a compass. I’m real Boy Scout-y like that. Then after getting utterly lost in the backstreets of Shibuya, I crouched on the ground and unfolded a map on the sidewalk. This is back when maps were these things made of paper. Yeah, Wikipedia it. I was like okay, so we take the compass, rotate the dial, orient the map northward, adjust for 7 degrees of magnetic declination, and yep, sure enough, I’ve no chance of ever finding my hostel again. Thank God I ran into a Japanese high school girl who knew where it was.
That never happens any more. I mean, I still run into high school girls, but that’s a different matter. Now what happens is my smartphone runs out of juice and I have to locate a 7-Eleven to buy a charger. Jeez, it’s always something. But until it does, I just type “Grungy Hostel” into Google Maps and a line of blue dots magically guides my intoxicated ass home. So yeah, in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t invest more time in perfecting my orienteering skills.
The Future of Translation
Does this mean learning a foreign language is a waste of time? I honestly don’t know. Hey, I still like riding bicycles and taking the stairs too. On the other hand, if it took me a decade to learn how to walk up and down a flight, I kind of think I’d be using escalators.
So as usual, I was drinking shochu with the old men at the neighborhood center yesterday, listening to stories of their lives. I doubt Spock ears would deliver the same experience. I’m happy I spent the years I did learning Japanese. It’s cool. Not sure I’d recommend it, but when it comes to an impressive skill, it’s clearly on the level of riding a unicycle or knitting a sick quilt. And when one of the old guys said it was his birthday, I quietly ran back to my apartment, grabbed a plastic pack of grilled sardines and placed it in a colorful birthday bag. When I gave it to him, his eyes welled with tears and he stood up and shook my hand, thanking me over and over. He looked like it was the greatest gift anyone had ever given him. I guess he really likes sardines. So yeah, guess I’m glad I knew that’s what they were.