In The Age of Artificial Intelligence, Will Multilingual Learning Matter?

‘A watercolor of multiple languages coming out of ear buds,’ by the AI program Dalle-2.

I was invited to write an essay for a book about the future of multilingualism and cultural fluency. Here’s what I came up with.

In the near future, when AI and robots can do almost everything better than humans, will having a multilingual education matter?

Yes… but not for the reasons it used to. You’ll never again have to order a beer or ask directions in multiple languages, or understand what the locals are saying in their native language.

AIs will speak all languages perfectly, and perform flawless real time translation for you, right from your keyboard or ear buds – negating any transactional advantage multilingualism would have given you.

Moreover, AIs will know everything there is to know about every culture, having trained on all the billions of video and audio recordings, texts and social media posts ever created by humans.

Don’t quit school just yet, however. Because language education and cultural fluency, broadly defined, could matter a lot to your future.

Bridging silos

Humans will have precious few advantages over machines in this future, mostly in areas that AIs will struggle to master:

  • judgment, passion, self-awareness, resilience, a sense of humor
  • the confidence that it’s ok to be different and break rules
  • the ability to understand human emotions and relationships
  • the ability to build human organizations and networks

But we’ll also have one huge disadvantage: we’re siloed. We live in small bubbles, physically and virtually, with others just like us. Not just country by country, but discipline by discipline, profession by profession, ideology by ideology.

Language ignorance, broadly defined, reinforces these silos. Most of us speak very few languages deeply. I’m talking not just about our native languages, but also the languages of finance, science, and art. Of music, weather, and politics. Programming languages. Belief languages. There are so many overlapping and complementary languages that make up life, and most of us are not nearly multilingual enough.

Computers will likely master many of these languages. But they’ll have a much harder time figuring out how they all interrelate. That’s where humans can wield power.

Look back at the above list of potential human advantages. What’s the best way to understand human emotions and relationships? Or to build human organizations and networks? By deeply understanding (and speaking) as many languages as possible, broadly defined. And by understanding human culture, in addition to the more obvious forces shaping our world today (physical/climate, military, technology, financial, communications, etc).

So let’s keep learning languages… just expand the definition!

Because multilingualism and cultural fluency will be key to controlling our own destiny in the AI era.

Why do I believe this?

I co-founded and ran Quizlet Inc., an online learning company whose AI-enhanced apps are used by sixty million students monthly – in almost every country – to study and practice whatever subjects they want, including languages.

I’ve been using technology and watching its development since the 1980s (got my first PC and sent my first email in 1984), and seeing how machines and the organizations who control them increasingly shape and dominate our lives.

But I’m also a huge believer in the importance and power of education, and especially widespread access to educational tools so they benefit all kids, not just rich kids. Education is the key to solving the world’s current biggest problems (like climate), and the next Albert (or Ali) Einsteins could come from anywhere among the billion-plus students on earth. We need to give them all the best education we can!