by Kim Pederson…….

Apparently, I can stop losing sleep at night over having still failed to learn French. I took French classes for three years in junior high from Miss Gail van Eyke, if memory serves. From her name, it sounds like we should have been studying Dutch. Maybe it would have gone better. The classroom comprised rows of sound booths with headphones for listening to drills. The back row, where we sat, had small reel-to-reel tape decks for individual study. These were covered with metal boxes when not in use. With the sound booths in the room, Miss van Eyke didn’t have a clear view of what all of her students were up to at any one time. This encouraged diversions such as driving Hot Wheels cars up and over and around the inside of the booth. Whenever MVE got around to asking someone a question like “Quel jour est aujourd’hui ?” the standard responses were a mix of caught-in-the-headlights stares and spasmodic shrugs with an occasional “huh?” thrown in to prove that we had not been struck totally dumb, or as she would query, “Vous êtes totalement stupide?”

I’ve felt the guilt ever since. Everyone else in the world speaks more than one language it seems. Why am I such a slouch? Why are we such slouches? Fortunately, the days of polyglot whine and psychoses are over. I found this out today while reading Joshua Cooper’s The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks. This is what Joshua tells us:

For the first time, as a result of constant connectivity, a once-unimagined possibility exists: real-time machine translation. Fast, ubiquitous networks mean that the central role of English will be boiled away someday not by another language but by an intelligent translation computer, available anytime, anywhere…. Reliable access to a great translation algorithm will one day be more important than the ability to speak English (or Spanish or Chinese). Those American parents now nervously plowing their children into Chinese classes are missing the point. Fluency in any second language in the future will be an arcane specialty. Better to teach the kids how to build an artificial intelligence program, or to debate the moral reasoning of Confucius and Socrates, than how to order dinner in a another language.

Phew! That’s a relief. I no longer have to explain to myself or anyone who’s interest (no one, really) that most humans beyond puberty have a sadly diminished procedural memory ability, that capacity to learn things like riding a bike and language rules unconsciously. According to Timewriter Abby Abrams (“Want to Learn a Language? Don’t Try to Hard”),

Adults may over-analyze new language rules or sounds and try to make them fit into some understandable and coherent pattern that makes sense to them. But a new language may involve grammar rules that aren’t so easily explained, and adults have more difficulty overcoming those obstacles than children, who simply absorb the rules or exceptions and learn from them.

I’d like to say that, yeah, that’s it, I’m trying too hard. But the truth is I haven’t tried at all. I think the real reason for my guilt over not learning francais stems from remembering the day the burly guys in white jackets came to third-period French, put a straightjacket on MVE, and took her away, whispering to her soothingly as she gibbered something about bringing back the guillotine to save the world from ninth graders. She had a point. We were definitely more interested in toy cars and spitballs than the patois of Albert Camus, Jules Verne, and Victor Hugo.

MVE: “Apportez-moi la tête de tous les élèves de neuvième année!”*

It occurs to me now, however, that the anxiety over French may be replaced by another insomnia-inducing concern: Why haven’t I ever learned to program an AI? I’m not that worried, though. I once wrote a little computer software routine for the Commodore 64. Things can’t be that much more complicated today, can they?

* Bring me the heads of all ninth graders!

Art Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793 at the Place de la Révolution, 1793-10-16, {{PD-US}}

Visit Kim Pederson’s blog RatBlurt: Mostly Random Short-Attention-Span Musings.

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