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With Google Translate (and possibly other translators) becoming both ubiquitous and very good at their purpose, it seems that the problem of getting your message across to a person without knowing their language is to a very large extent solved. In the past, you simply couldn't communicate with a person who doesn't know your language without knowing theirs (or hiring a human translator). It also used to be the case that machine translators were laughingly bad at their job.

But now that that's changed, why would one want to learn a foreign language?

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At the time of writing, June 2020, the reasons for learning a foreign language have not significantly changed in spite of the availability of powerful translation software.

  1. Machine translation services and software are far from perfect. You still need a human to verify whether a machine-generated translation is correct. For example, last year, I used an automated translation service (one that is superior to Google Translate for longer texts) to generate a German translation of three English-language manuals. The output still needed extensive editing, not only for mistranslations of labels (the manuals were about software) but also to correct vocabulary, grammar and style. If the language in a manual is wordy or vague, the this can have a very negative impact on the translation. In addition, some syntactical constructions in the source language can sound alien in the target language. A machine translation can be a good starting point but not the final product.

  2. Just "getting the meaning across" if often not good enough. Especially in literary texts, how something is said can be more important than the literal meaning. As far as I know, these subtleties are beyond the grasp of machine translation.

  3. While you can use machine translation for text, it is impractical for face-to-face communication that goes beyond a few sentences. Companies have started selling portable translators such as the ili Instant Translator that translates spoken language. These seem to work well for travel and other basic communication situations, but one would not want to use such devices for work meetings or long conversations generally, because it would become tiring. This type of device would also be impractical for watching TV, listening to the radio or going to the cinema or the theatre.

  4. While the number of languages supported by machine translation services is now well over a hundred, this is still a small subset of the 6000-7000 languages that currently exist.

  5. Communicating in a foreign language is usually more than translating your own thoughts (assuming you can only think in your native language) into a target language: it also requires knowledge of social and cultural norms and conventions. Learning about these aspects is part and parcel of learning to communicate effectively in a foreign language. Replacing language learning with machine translation may help us get basic meaning across, but remaining unaware of cultural and social differences would isolate us more on a higher (and sometimes more significant) level.

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    Maybe add: It is faster to simply read than to use some translation software between. And that many jobs require or prefer you to know the local language, so anyone moving a foreign country is advised to learn the local language. (There are also other reasons.) – Tommi Jun 4 at 7:55

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