Jublo is a certified UK translation and digital agency based in Leeds.

Is Google Translate Stopping Brits Learning New Languages?

The beauty of translation is that it is an art, not a science. The direct, word for word translations that come as a result of using a machine rather than a human translator often leave the final product messy, and usually hilariously inaccurate. However, since the launch of Google Translate, people have been relying on translation software more and more. 

We delved into research to find that over the last 20 years, there has been a drastic decline in people learning multiple languages. Could this be down to a rise in accessible translation machines? And what are the risks of an over-reliance on translation software? 

A Steady Decline 

After a deep dive into the world of language learning led to us unearthing statistics from the past 20 years which show a significant decline Brits taking an interest in foreign languages. For example, in 2012, 38% of Brits said they would speak at least one foreign language, however, by 2018 just 32% said they felt confident reading and writing in two or more languages. 

Figures from BBC analysis show that since 2013, there has been drops of between 30% and 50% in the numbers taking GCSE language courses in the worst affected areas in England. Numbers from Statista show that French language GCSE exam entries plummeted from almost 12,000 in 2011 to just over 7,600 in 2019 - a decline of 36%. 

In 2014, 70% of young people showed an interest in studying a foreign language, but 2018 research from The European Commission shows that fewer than half of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland take a foreign language GCSE. This is also compared with three in four who took a foreign language GCSE in 2002. 

This is a significant drop across the whole of the UK, not only in the ability to speak a second language, but also in our interest to learn. This will inevitably have a big impact on our ability within business to communicate across languages. The world is getting smaller, which means we need to be prepared to work with non-English speaking countries and do so without offending or confusing our business partners. 

What is the Cause? 

While there are a number of possibilities for this decline, it would be naive not to consider the ease with which Brits are able to travel without learning the language of the country they visit, due to the accessibility of translation software such as Google Translate. The service was first released in 2006, and has since grown to have over 500 million users worldwide, and translates more than 100 billion words per day. 

With such a powerful tool in the hands of anyone with access to the internet - the need for learning multiple languages suddenly seems less pressing. There was a time when visiting a country that isn’t predominantly English speaking was a motivation to take a language class, or at least purchase a translation dictionary and learn key phrases. However, now, Google Translate and other similar apps have eliminated that need. 

With regards to the business world, human translation is also seeing a decline, with more and more businesses moving towards cheaper options such as translation software. 

The Problem With Translation Software 

While simple translation tools such as Google Translate serve a purpose, and can be helpful for directly translating singular words or very small phrases, often there are risks for using these services for anything more complex. Even Google themselves don’t use the tool for their own business translations, and for good reason. 

A good translator will tell you that the inherent differences in how different languages communicate means that a direct, word-for-word translation will almost always come out incorrect. For example, the French phrase "Se taper le cul par terre" means to laugh uproariously. However, according to Google Translate, it means "Ass banging on the floor".

In a human versus machine translation competition in Sejong Cyber University in Korea, the machines were faster, but 90% of their results were ‘grammatically awkward’.

Nobody is denying that translation software is helpful, however there is a time and place for it. When it comes to true, authentic and accurate translation, there is no replacement from a human who commands the languages completely. 

At Jublo, we understand the importance of human translation, and the risks that come from relying on software to do an incredibly nuanced job. Hopefully the rise in accessible language learning, in the form of apps and affordable home learning courses, will help people to progress their own language learning so we don’t end up with an over-reliance on software.