I have heard the dark rumors in the back corners of teacher’s rooms, I have been in meetings with business directors trying to figure out how to monetize off it and I have read the newspaper in absolute terror when it is mentioned: the idea of technology replacing teachers. The movie industry is full of films where AI has reached a level where robots are nearly indistinguishable from humans–are they the new teachers? The idea of a universal translator in science fiction is an idea almost as old as the genre itself. But just how far is technology likely to go in relation to replacing TEFL teachers and how long will it take to get there?
Machines replacing humans in the workplace is a common story, and there isn’t always warning. Just think about the increasingly automatized auto industry that put hundreds of thousands out of work. I’ve recently read an article that predicts driverless lorries and taxis to be coming out in the next few decades; how many people will lose their jobs because of this?
The thought has always been that skilled labor or work that depends on intellect could never be done by machines. However, with research and development into the very limits of what has been believed possible, we can see that this may not be the case. Let’s take a look at some of the threats.
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Let’s forget science fiction idea of the universal translator for the moment, and instead look at some of the translating gadgets/systems that have existed, currently exist or are coming out soon. One device that I remember my wife purchasing ten years ago was a little electronic dictionary. A particularly attractive feature of this device was its supposed ability to translate entire sentences. As world travelers, this seemed well worth the money that my wife and I spent on it. The only problem was that it didn’t work.
It worked pretty well as a dictionary, but it was absolute rubbish at doing any translating. It took us a little while of learning some Korean before we realized just how bad the device was. In retrospect, buying a dedicated device for a dictionary or translator is rather archaic. The clear leader in the translation game at the moment is Google translate, and you’d be hard pressed to be far from some device that could use this bit of tech.
True, Google translate isn’t perfect. It still puts out some odd turns of phrase from time to time in its struggle to understand the nuances of a language. Also, Google translate still works best for languages that are relatively similar. The more different the languages are from each other, the harder time Google has with it. With that in mind, this technology is amazing and continues to get better the more it is used. So how long will it take to replace the need to learn languages? Nobody seems to know.
Also there are devices on the horizon like ili , which boasts a wireless translation device that fits into your ear. You simply talk into a handheld device, which translates what you are saying instantly. When you hear the other language, it is translated into the earpiece. The device doesn’t rely on wifi, so it is ideal for travellers.
Don’t quit your job just yet though. The reality is that, while devices like this are getting better, they are a very poor substitute for the ability to speak another language. You can’t really have a conversation with ili that isn’t Elementary level or below. At least, that’s what I’ve gleaned from the company’s videos. Check it out for yourself.
The Robot Teacher
Currently, this is a laughable idea. I remember reading an article about robot teachers in the classroom over five years ago. It was a crude looking contraption that kind of looked like WALL-E, but for its head there was a small tv screen with a western looking person’s face. The article boasted that it was designed to be attractive to children, but the pictures from the article revealed some very bored kids.
This teacher rolled around the classroom giving example sentences, leading choral drills and even trying to lead games. In my mind, there is no way that this type of robot is and immediate threat to in class teachers. Until we get to a Blade Runner level AI, robots aren’t likely to replace us.
Online Teaching and Video Lessons
A much larger classroom threat is the idea of interactive video lessons. Almost every company that I’ve worked for has looked at “distance learning” as some sort of Holy Grail that will make their profits soar. The idea is that an interactive online learning solution would unlock remote areas and villages where the students want to learn English, but the market is either too small or the income of the people in the area too low for companies to invest there.
Also, if your company could do it right, creating interactive online lessons that work, would instantly globalize your company. The problem with this, as I’ve encountered when trying to develop these programs, is that they aren’t nearly as engaging or fun as a real classroom. Even if you are able to make the environment somewhat interactive and full of games, it’s not enough to hold a child’s attention. These programs are getting better, but I look at them as more of a classroom addition than a TEFL teacher replacement.
Online teaching, on the other hand, is a replacement for a classroom teacher (at least in the mind of the client). Instead of going to a center with a large group of students, why not study in private from the comfort of your own home or office? I’ve yet to teach an online class, but I know a lot of teachers who do. When asked about it, the responses are usually that the money is decent and that they like working from home. When pressed about how successful they think this form of teaching is for the students, I have yet to hear one positive response.
The idea of a world where everyone’s language could be instantly translated, and we could all communicate freely sounds like a positive one. I have my doubt whether it will ever really be the case though. Culture is deeply embedded in language. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to become fluent in a language without understanding its culture. So one is forced to question what a mono-language world looks like. Would it mean the loss of individual languages character? Would it mean constantly accepting only somewhat understanding what others are saying?
At any rate, though I really am not able to predict this, I wouldn’t worry about the TEFL industry closing within the next ten years. So rest easy, skill up and keep teaching those classes.
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