Language Translation Apps: No Replacement for Learning



There’s no doubt that foreign language translation apps are growing in popularity. In fact, some people believe they will replace formal language learning.

Don’t count on it.

It’s extremely unlikely translation apps will ever take the place of language learning programs, such as those offered by Berlitz.

Many translation apps rely on statistical analysis and algorithms after analyzing millions of documents in different languages. These apps have their place, particularly when a user needs to look up one specific word or phrase. But they almost never help in actually learning a language of carrying on a conversation.

Here are some reasons:

  • In many languages, the inflection placed on a specific letter word completely changes the meaning of a word, something you may not realize from looking at a smartphone

    Take Italian, for example where the word papa when said can have different meanings. Papa can mean the Pope, but when you accent the final “a” (papa) means father.
  • Apps can give you the wrong word to convey your point.

    Again, let’s take Italian. Look up the English word “enough” in English, and Google will give you the Italian word “abbastanza”. If you have enough to eat and are full, abbastanza is the right word for enough. Want to tell your children you have had enough of their arguing? Then the word for enough is “basta,” which you won’t know without delving further.
  • There are many other nuances language apps can’t provide.

    Using Italian one more time, assume you want something at a restaurant or shop. Look up the phrase, “I want,” and the word “volgio” comes up. With actual language learning, you’ll know to use the word vorrie, “I would like.” It’s the same verb but is much more polite and you’ll get a much better reaction, and perhaps better service.

    Also, dialects often vary depending on the region of the country you visit. You won’t know that from an app.
  • Using a translation app to converse can be downright agonizing

    No matter how proficient you are with a smartphone, it takes time to look up a foreign word or phrase, disrupting the flow and cadence of conversation, particularly when you have to search for multiple translations. This can lead to an awkward silence, and native language speakers becoming more irritated by the minute.
  • Translation apps don’t give you appropriate sentence syntax

    You can’t assume other languages are structured the same as yours. For example, the place of verbs, adjectives, pronouns, etc. varies greatly from language to language.
  • Apps can’t express emotion

    Many languages (French, Italian, Spanish etc.) rely more than others on emotion and gestures to express a point. You can’t get this from looking at a smartphone.

Finally, formal learning, as in Berlitz programs, helps you understand the culture of the country whose language you’re learning. This helps make your trip or work assignment, more fulfilling and successful.

Again, translation apps have their place, but not for truly learning a language.