We’re glad you’re back for more on this important topic. Consider the following story about how an AI translation jeopardized an asylum claim:

“In the interviews, the refugee had first maintained that she’d made it through one particular event alone, but the written statement seemed to reference other people with her at the time — a discrepancy large enough for a judge to reject her asylum claim.

After Mirkhail went over the documents, she saw what had gone wrong: An automated translation tool had swapped the I pronouns in the woman’s statement to we.” (Rest of World)

Learning a new language teaches us about how language works. Many of us swim effortlessly through our language like a fish in a fishbowl, comfortable with our surroundings even if we haven’t explored and understood them all. However, when we’re taken out of our tank and left to flop around in a new environment, where the rules are different yet some of the root words are the same, we find a whole new understanding of and appreciation for the language we natively speak. Even if we never get fluent in a second language, our efforts will pay off in increased communicative competency in our first language. Plus, we’ll always remember certain things that will make us more aware of how things might get lost in translation.

Do you really know what makes up a sentence, or do you only know that it starts with a capital letter and ends with a period? Do you remember learning about nouns and verbs once upon a time, but do you feel uncomfortable if pushed to recognize which is which? Learning German, for example, can be a big help. Germans capitalize all nouns and have a rigid sentence structure that requires verbs to be in certain positions. Learning German or a similar language could help you with your sentence structure in any language.

Would you like to see the world in a way you’d never noticed before? As you’re headed out to pick those ripe tomatoes, do you know that a Spanish speaker might think it’s strange that you pick them from a garden. Hispanics pick them from a huerta or a huerto, because their jardín is only for decorative plants. On the other hand, some Spanish speakers, influenced by British English where a garden can refer to decorative plants or a small yard, might use jardín to refer to a flowerbed or a grassy patch. Language is our tool for naming and categorizing the things in our environment, and when we learn another language, we learn about the environment – the culture – that has developed that language.

Learning any language, especially Romance languages, Germanic languages or Greek, helps identify roots of English words that you may have never noticed, sharpening your vocabulary skills across languages. The Latin-derived root word tract, for example, is about carrying or taking. When you attract something, you bring it to you. When you subtract, you take it away. The next time you sit down to help your daughter with her math homework and you say take away, you’ll know that that’s also exactly what subtract means. We can go on to analyze detract, retract, contract, extract and more. We often uncover very literal meanings that, after centuries of being used metaphorically, are part of our consciousness today.

Learning other languages opens our minds up to understanding that not every language uses the same tools to communicate things. English, like many languages, modifies a noun when there is more than one of that noun. We usually add an -s to make nouns plural. However, a language like Chinese will only use a quantity word to make things plural. One book, two book, some book. The quantity word suffices; the extra pluralizing particle is not used.

Even if we never become fluent in a language, learning about language will help us communicate with more people because we have some understanding of those things that just might translate awkwardly between languages. Just like when your fingers fly too fast over the calculator and you get an answer that you know couldn’t possibly be correct because of the mathematical sense you’ve acquired along the way, you can use even some basics of language to help create original documents that you would like professionally translated, or evaluate the accuracy of a computer-generated translation.

Are you hooked on some of the things you’ve learned in this blog post? Care to learn more?
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