Tech and world language skills shortages

Howie Berman

Howie Berman

Howie Berman is executive director for ACTFL, with 18 years of experience working with nonprofit membership organizations. He serves on the executive committees of the Trust for Insuring Educators (TIE) and the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL).

Tech and world language skills shortages

Howie Berman

Howie Berman

Howie Berman is executive director for ACTFL, with 18 years of experience working with nonprofit membership organizations. He serves on the executive committees of the Trust for Insuring Educators (TIE) and the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL).


he impact of language is undeniable. The ability to communicate with employees, partners, prospects and customers effectively is a crucial driver of the economy. Without proper communication skills, organizations are left unable to conduct business and navigate the demanding requirements of an ever-evolving global marketplace.

In today’s interconnected society, increased globalization of the world’s economy is bringing groups of people together in previously impossible ways. This pivot toward technology has fueled businesses’ ability to connect with individuals and organizations across the globe. For example, social media, messaging applications and teleconference technology make it easy for companies to connect with individuals around the world. But that doesn’t mean they have the ability to actually communicate.

Merely having immediate access to individuals throughout various regions of the world is just one small part of being able to capitalize on new channels of business, of course.

A critical need for world languages

With companies increasingly conducting business in languages other than English, employing multilingual staff can be an absolute necessity for any business. Sometimes, relying on third-party translation or interpretation is not enough. The demand for language skills in the US workforce is more significant than ever before, which is evident by the growing shortage of language skills in the US economy.

ACTFL’s recent report, “Making Languages Our Business: Addressing Foreign Language Demand Among U.S. Employers,” shows results from a national survey among 1,200 upper-level managers and human resources professionals with knowledge of their organization’s foreign language needs. The report was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, with support from Pearson LLC and Language Testing International.

Of those surveyed, nearly one in four US employers acknowledged losing or being unable to pursue a business opportunity over the singular lack of foreign language skills. Nine out of ten reported reliance on employees with language skills other than English.

A majority of employers surveyed reported their need for foreign languages has increased over the past five years and project that it will continue to grow. These findings are in line with other surveys of hiring managers and human resources professionals, pointing to a growing demand for foreign language skills over the past decade. A 2017 New American Economy report detailed postings for bilingual workers more than doubled between 2010 and 2015.

There’s still work to do

Automated translation tools for emailing colleagues, for example, may have a place in the workforce. However you look at it, the reality is that employees often turn to Google Translate and similar tech during the course of their workdays. While this tech has its place in addressing cross-linguistic challenges, it obviously has limitations. Using these tools may provide the user with a working language base, but becoming proficient in a new language requires something much deeper.

Communication depends on more than the words — how the words are said is often just as important. Unfortunately, this can be overlooked by algorithms. As the localization industry knows well by now, the algorithms powering Google Translate function by analyzing oceans of text in an attempt to gain understanding of how language works. The problem with this formula is that sometimes, machine translations and machine interpretation struggle to pick up on vital cultural clues such as context, accent and slang. The resulting text can lead to gender bias, inappropriate suggestions and other inaccuracies.

A prime example of machine learning gone bad is when Microsoft launched an AI chatbot called Tay in 2016. The project was an experiment in teaching AI to understand conversation. After just one day of exposure to human interaction on Twitter, the bot began to imitate undesirable behavior. Engaging in racism and trolling, Tay started posting messages that would make even the most offensive Twitter troll blush.

Data-fueled algorithms offer an unparalleled convenience compared to traditional language routes, but often at a price. They don’t typically provide better insight into the language than a human conversing with another human, and frequently, the translation is worse.

Google Translate supports 103 languages and has a robust and direct influence on society’s understanding of unfamiliar words. Yet, in many cases, the tool incidentally leads to gender bias in results, automatically defaulting to masculine results for words like “brave” or “surgeon,” when the reality is that these words could, of course, be referring to a female just as well as a male. Google is making an effort to reduce gender bias in this tool, but this serves as proof that there is room to improve AI in automated language tools.

Even with these concerns, of course, there’s still plenty of room for technology to supplement language. This is true for language education as well. In fact, technology can be a handy tool when used alongside human teaching.

The Foreign Language Skills Gap

Technology in the classroom

Language educators across the nation are already embracing and implementing technology in their classrooms to assist in educating students. These tools can help address cultural communication and improve a class’ holistic understanding of the language. It’s critical to understand that the use of technology is not a goal in and of itself. Rather technology is one tool supporting language learners as they use the language in culturally appropriate ways to accomplish authentic tasks.

The use of augmented and virtual reality, for example, can allow students to virtually visit countries across the globe, simulating the experience of traveling abroad. Tools can enhance a student’s learning experience by teaching the language itself, as well as how to pick up on cultural cues — an element absent when using a translation device.

Some educators are also adopting digital storytelling applications to allow students the chance to create personalized stories in a new language and further hone their skills. These applications serve as a visual platform where students can use photos and text to create a storybook on a topic of their choosing. This activity gives students the chance to spend additional time with the language and become more comfortable using it in an everyday setting.

The origins of language are historical, ancestral and familial. Styles are established based on the reliance on a diversity of experiences, backgrounds and thoughts, attuned to different histories and upbringing.

When a student sits in a physical classroom to learn a new language, the instructor doesn’t merely teach vocabulary and grammar. Language teachers focus on cultural communication — the ability to not only be able to speak and understand the language, but to understand the meaning behind the words in a cultural context. As the localization industry knows only too well, cultural context allows students (and end users of products) to understand perspectives and points of view in addition to words and phrases.

Language educators hold the key to the future of automated language learning. Automated tools will never serve as a standalone replacement for traditional language education — Google Translate isn’t going to teach you Chinese, for example. It certainly is not going to teach you well enough to become a highly skilled linguist capable of improving the Google Translate results in Chinese. In order to improve a machine’s understanding of language for the world at large, you must first understand that language yourself.

Teachers across science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics use technology to supplement teaching, just as language teachers do. There will still always be a need for traditional education in these areas.

AI in language education

There has been a rise in AI technology in the field of education in the past decade. Proliferation of smart technology has touched learning institutions from universities to kindergartens. Chalkboards, textbooks and videotapes are being gradually replaced by VR glasses, smartphones, tablets and the Internet of Things.

Educational hyper-personalization

One way in which AI can alter school curriculum and address changing educational needs is through personalized learning. This approach implies that each student is a unique individual with learning needs that should be addressed separately. Personality and aptitude tests help in building an individual learning plan based on student’s points of strength, weaknesses, core values and learning type. Each child also requires personalized learning channels through which it is easier for them to digest and process information. In this regard, AI improves the existing education system by helping children be their unique selves and learn at the most comfortable, reasonable and smart pace.

Distant knowledge

Another significant advantage of the digital educational era is the geographical expansion of learning opportunities. Online learning platforms, applications and webinars have made distant learning an outlet for receiving higher education and enriching oneself in an affordable way. Students from remote areas, underprivileged backgrounds or poor families can now study using a computer or any other device. Accessible education also addresses the problem of illiteracy, allowing people to learn and educate themselves wherever they are currently residing.

Digital motivation

There is a certain weight that educational leaders feel when it comes to digital learning. One of the risk areas concludes in students’ motivation. How to keep them wired and curious when information is so easily accessible? Some cases show that children do not feel the need to continuously put effort into a given assignment when they understand that help will come from online resources. They can google test answers that were posted to the web by another student. As we know, in order to get data into our long-term memory, we should repeat it over and over, preferably in verbal, oral and written forms. Unfortunately, children with all the answers at their fingertips may not put much effort into their home assignments or the overall educational process because they do not really see the point. Why train themselves and learn historical facts by heart when anything can be just googled?

Social fragility

Innovative learning definitely has some positive outcomes. It is, however, important to remember that any advances in technology (especially those that affect children) can not take place without social and emotional implications. Humans have evolved within a strong community. Social bonds, mutual learning and peer guidance have always played a vital role in the establishment of our society. And as the technological forces are growing stronger, emotional bonds are getting weaker. When kids spend most of their time looking at their devices, they unintentionally steal time from playing with each other, from communication and building friendships. Understanding the utter fragility of human contact is essential to empower and sustain emotional connections in the world of digitalized classrooms.

Tech + human

Fundamental questions about what education is and how it should be delivered can be addressed by the new synergic learning approach. Digital learning can provide students with a certain type of online companionship where mutual education will take place. For example, peer-to-peer learning platforms provide users with a range of features where they can find a partner to learn with.

Hybrid language platforms such as Polygled allow users to teach each other through their devices. Chat partners from around the globe can join together in a dialog to practice a foreign language with one another.

eLearning platform Udemy aims at making education easily accessible and affordable by allowing students to receive knowledge from more than 10,000 subject matter experts.

Interactive learning application Hologo uses virtual images to educate its users about the construct of the world.

All these platforms make education easier, more enjoyable accessible and fun. And, most importantly, they bring people together and unite them in their thirst for knowledge.