Microsoft CEO Attacks Foreign Language Education

Ivan Schneider, Writer, specializing in financial technology | 7/1/2013 | 23 comments

Ivan Schneider
Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer at Microsoft UK (what, were you really expecting an article about Steve Ballmer?), recently wrote an Financial Times article questioning the value of foreign language education (registration required). His article also provides a strong signal about what his company intends to do with its Skype acquisition.

"Should we bother to teach children a foreign language, when big data-powered technology could soon do [real-time speech translation] better and much more efficiently?," Coplin asks.

By that logic, I suppose that we can end that time waster called physical education because of Segways. Take the kids out of karate class because of bombs. Give up dentistry because of blenders and straws. Skip history, government, philosophy, and every other conceivable pursuit of the liberal arts because of Wikipedia.

Looking beyond the Microsoft executive's (mildly successful) attempt to garner some attention with a bold attack on the all-powerful foreign language education lobby -- or what's left of it after the sequester -- there are some interesting technology implications behind his incredible claim. We should soon expect a mashup between Skype and Douglas Adams' Babel fish that may forever transform customer service and enterprise workforce interactions.

The confidence that Coplin shows in the technology gives me the impression that speech-to-speech translation already works wonders in certain scenarios. We can imagine the most obvious customers: the governments and spy agencies quietly training their attention on phone calls placed by persons of interest. After all, a court-approved wiretap is much more effective when you don't have to wait for a translator. The commercial and civilian sectors would be next in line. Some situations we might anticipate (or which may already exist in embryonic form):

  • You speak on the phone to a customer service representative (CSR), who gets to see a transcript of what you're saying as you're saying it. The CSR doesn't miss anything and asks for confirmations when necessary. The company keeps a text-searchable record of the call.
  • You speak on the phone to a CSR for whom English is a second language. The real-time transcript guides the CSR to the appropriate range of canned answers. The company lowers its costs by having access to a larger labor pool.
  • You speak on the phone to a computer, with any nonstandard queries handled behind the scenes through Amazon Mechanical Turk or an equivalent tool, reducing the hands-on labor component to a minimum.
  • You speak through Skype to a friend, colleague, or business partner, using real-time subtitles or dubbing to overcome language barriers.
  • You can attend a conference presented in a second language with more assurance and comfort.
  • You can speak to someone working in retail customer service anywhere in the world.
  • Throughout your travels, whatever you hear gets automatically translated into English and whispered into your Bluetooth-enabled earphone.

There are limits. I don't expect machine translation to be particularly helpful at making you seem witty and charming when you're having drinks with the team during your next overseas posting. (See: CIO as Chief Immigration Officer.) Nor would I expect it to help you ace that big job interview. The accuracy rate is a major constraint on how the technology will be used. Even 99 percent isn't good enough if there are high stakes associated with what you're hearing.

Furthermore, machine translation skips the nonverbal aspects of communication. If I'm in Japan, how will translation software infer what level of politeness I should use in any given situation? If I'm in Italy, will the software tell me what to do with my hands? What about the Gallic shrug?

Finally, as a dues-paying member of the Modern Language Association, I must register my strong disapproval of Coplin's vision of the end of language education. An illustrative quote from a 2007 MLA report describes a spectrum of views of language:

At one end, language is considered to be principally instrumental, a skill to use for communicating thought and information. At the opposite end, language is understood as an essential element of a human being's thought processes, perceptions, and self-expressions; and as such it is considered to be at the core of translingual and transcultural competence.

Guess where I land on this spectrum.

What's your take on the future of language-translation technology in the enterprise? Also, do you think Microsoft is meshuga for opposing foreign language education? Espero leer sus pensamientos en los comentarios.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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sherly_mendoza   Microsoft CEO Attacks Foreign Language Education   7/31/2013 9:18:25 AM
Re: language education very important
I share your ideas, Syerita. A person who can speak and understand a second (or even third) language will go places. In the workplace, he will have a fair advantage over his co-workers. In some instances, he may even be given a particular project because of his knowledge of foreign languages. And, yes, he will have greater chances of getting assigned overseas; of spreading his wings and experiencing more. Learning a foreign language or two will also give you confidence, so you'll find ti comfortable speaking in front a group of people not only online, but in a non-technical environment as well.
kstaron   Microsoft CEO Attacks Foreign Language Education   7/25/2013 6:08:37 PM
speech to speech can't eliminate misunderstandings
While speech to speech might help people get by for a vacation or a business meeting, there's so much you miss  by relying on technology to do your thinking for you. We use metaphos and similies a lot when we talk. So if you mention you feel like "a fish out of water" speech to speech is not going to help you and you may be completely confused when they offer show you scenery of the beach or ask if your device got wet due to the misunderstood comment. It may become another tool in the arsenal of communication across borders but it can't replace knowing the language.
CMTucker   Microsoft CEO Attacks Foreign Language Education   7/16/2013 5:50:05 PM
Re: Ugh
@John great points. I hope that this doesn't hold either...maybe he wanted more emphasis on computer languages? We do need more skills in that area. But the idea that we need less language education is a crock.
Syerita Turner   Microsoft CEO Attacks Foreign Language Education   7/16/2013 2:05:56 PM
Re: language education very important
Awesome and informative post. I believe that taking language out of schools is not a good idea at all. I believe that learning a second language gives people something to strive for and seperates them from just English speakers. It provides versitility in the workplace and allows people to take advantage of overseas opportunities. Technology is awesome when you are on the phone or on a webinar but face to face it won't be available for you to use and in most cases not appropriate. We must keep to some of our old-fashioned ways. Technology is only as good to the one who knows how to use it.
davidfletcher   Microsoft CEO Attacks Foreign Language Education   7/3/2013 6:04:14 PM
Re: appalling!
I've been interested in automated foreign language translation for over 30 years when a company called ALPS in Provo, Utah was one of the leaders in this area.  We've made tremendous progress since then, but I would hate to have to communicate with my friends in Spain, Mexico, or Honduras through an automaton.

I have gained a lot of additional insights about the Chinese people from learning their language and the nuances that affect their world view.  The same holds true for Russian, Spanish, Greek, or any other language that I have studied.  And it makes the world a more interesting place.
Susan Fourtané   Microsoft CEO Attacks Foreign Language Education   7/3/2013 2:25:23 AM
Re: appalling!
LOL, Technorat! :D Yes, true. 

I honestly wonder how come some people get to to position of CEO, where would expect to always find a brilliant mind leading. Not a pea brain. 

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JohnVerity   Microsoft CEO Attacks Foreign Language Education   7/2/2013 12:12:15 PM
DARPA's on the case
DARPA has long been funding research into real-time language translation, including hand-held gizmos that would let soldiers in foreign places deal with locals. Whether it works or not, that's another question. I wouldn't want to be trying to get along with angry villagers, solely dependent on a mobile translation device. Perhaps there are some limits here, some lessons to be learned about how far into human affairs technology can intrude. 
CurtisFranklin   Microsoft CEO Attacks Foreign Language Education   7/2/2013 12:04:29 PM
Re: appalling!
@Ivan, if the purpose was to stir discussion then I suppose it was a successful speech. If, on the other hand, the idea was to present Microsoft in a positive light, then I'd rank the speech as rather disappointing.
JohnVerity   Microsoft CEO Attacks Foreign Language Education   7/2/2013 11:55:04 AM
It's fairly sickening that a big-shot executive like this would propose such a stoopid idea as doing away with learning foreign languages. Only in America, I'd say, which is notoriously insular; only recently, we had a president who'd never travelled abroad, let's not forget.

Only in a world where it's machines that need to speak with each other, not people conversing about the things that matter to them, at this moment in this place, would such a proposal make any sense. It says something about the vision at Microsoft -- and, I worry, at too many big companies right now -- that this guy gets to say what he does in a high-profile forum, too. (And this guy is the 'chief envisioning officer'? Yikes.)

The fact is, for thousands of years, there was no such thing as human language; this is a very recent concept, brought about by the invention of the alphabet and writing. For most of human history, people just got along, "communicating" with each other as best they could.  (I put the quote marks there to indicate that I do not mean that people exchanged bits of information or code; they spoke, they gestured, they did whatever was needed to say what was needed to the people they encountered.) And until recently, every valley, every region had its own dialect and its own version of the general surrounding "language." There was no such thing as "mother tongue" until compulsory schooling was put in place. 

Anyway, this is a fascinating topic. Let's hope Mr. Coplin doesn't get his way. 
Technocrat   Microsoft CEO Attacks Foreign Language Education   7/2/2013 4:13:31 AM
Re: appalling!
@S.F.   Agreed.  He probably is too narrow minded to even be embarrassed.
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