Imagine if you could wander around China among the 1.2 billion people who speak Mandarin and understand what they are saying to you in real-time… without being able to speak a word of the language yourself. A new gadget claims to have taken the first big leap in this direction. The way it works is that two people each wear an earpiece, supported by a smartphone app. The device purportedly translates what the other person is saying in your ear immediately and vice versa. English, French, Spanish and Italian are the languages the new gadget will reportedly translate, so it won’t be too useful in China at this stage.

Who knows what the future holds for nifty technology such as this, but will it make language training like the work we do at Goinglobal obsolete? I don’t think so. Not unless or until artificial intelligence figures out how to interpret the intricate nuances of the many languages we speak. I spent a good deal of a lesson recently helping a student understand the different ways we can use the word “quite” in English. This involved understanding the similar ways the Spanish equivalent is used, so he could work out the proper context when speaking English. For the sake of argument, let’s just say the nifty translator in your ear tells you that the person you’re chatting to says it’s quite cold today. Does he or she mean it’s “extremely” cold or “fairly” cold? If we say it’s quite warm outside, we usually mean it’s fairly warm, warm to a fairly significant extent. If I say I quite agree with you, however, I mean I absolutely, completely agree. Not mostly or sort-of, but all the way. How do you help someone understand such a difference without explanation? And what if the language the other person speaks doesn’t have the equivalent expressions when talking about weather or agreeing with someone? Not to mention slang and idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs, all of which need to be meticulously explained to language learners who in turn need to practise using them in their own context if they are ever going to stick.

I’m sure a gadget such as this earpiece translator thingy will come in handy in certain contexts, especially if a basic, survival-level of language is required. But I don’t think language training is quite ready to be disappear into the shadows of history.