August 2011 Editorial: Joining the Digital Dots

Traditionally every August, we publish our annual focus on technology, hoping that many readers will have a little extra time over the summer to assess the latest developments and work out where they can find the means to finance them. However, technology has now become so much a part of not only the language education process but communication in general that we would find it difficult to publish any issue without covering technical innovations.

Because of this plethora of products and current budgetary woes, it is more important than ever to take the time to assess the value of new programs and devices before jumping on the speeding technology bus, so our August issue will continue to focus on technology with the emphasis on the practical — making technology work instead of getting carried away by the latest gadget. In this edition, there’s a feature on classroom tasks suited to interactive whiteboards, a round-up of the latest internet-based language programs, and an in-depth look at how Arabic designers have tackled the challenge of adapting their language to the Latin script bias of the digital age.

It is this same preponderance of global digitization that has made language acquisition and retention more important than ever. The ease with which we can already buy, sell, share, and collaborate internationally is mind-blowing – about as mind-blowing as the short-sightedness of Congress and state legislatures in their eagerness to cut funding for world languages programs (see Feds Slash World Language Funding, July 2011, p.10). Predicting that linguistic skills are going to become increasingly important as global communications improve doesn’t require a crystal ball. The value of the ability to communicate in more than one language is multiplied by each opportunity to use that language so our ever more interconnected world will increase the need for multilingualism exponentially.

Cynics may argue that English is the world’s lingua franca and the language of computing so other languages are merely a luxury. But they fail to see that however necessary English may be, it is the base on which our children should build if they are to truly take advantage of the communications miracle we are experiencing.

Yes, a form of World English will continue to dominate digital communication for some time but that English is likely to diverge from the English we speak today. Technology is not only changing our spheres of communication; it is changing the language we use. Consider the way texting and email have created their own linguistic offshoots of English. As voice recognition becomes more commonplace, its use will likely require the development of a new form of spoken English as well as other languages. Now, that virtual reality looks set to make its long-awaited breakthrough into our homes and workplaces, we can only just start to imagine how our use of language and languages themselves will adapt.

Over 50 years ago, proponents of voice recognition told us that nobody would be writing or typing in 20 years — now, we text and type more than ever. We were also told that automatic translation would obviate the need to learn languages but now, there are more people learning and more people speaking second languages than the world has ever known. America is rightly proud of the ingenuity and adaptability of its people.

We would do well to make the most of the technical innovations of which we are so proud, use them as learning tools, and adapt to the new communication age by broadening our linguistic horizons instead of resting on our monolingual laurels.