The first time I traveled to Brazil I was determined to learn the language, so I struggled with the words and phrases until I managed to make myself understood. It helped that Brazilians are enormously kind, and were generally delighted that I was trying to communicate. The first phrase I learned well was “Eu não falo português” (I do not speak Portuguese). My accent was passable enough that people would start laughing. “Sim,” they would argue, trying to be encouraging, “Sim fala!”
During that first trip I ran into a guy from Germany who was traveling around Brazil. He had a little portable electronic phrasebook, which he would use to communicate. “Why do you bother trying to learn a whole language?” he asked me. “All I need is this little device, and I can get around just fine.” I sensed a vast and unbridgeable gulf between us. As far as I was concerned, if you’re going to be in a place for a while, at least try to learn to speak the language.
Yesterday someone suggested to me that Google Translate, which is getting better and better, might replace learning other languages. Perhaps one day, when we are all seeing the world through our augmented reality contact lenses, and running nth generation versions of Siri and Google Translate, my belief that you’re supposed to at least try to learn other languages will come to seem hopelessly quaint.
Of course it won’t be as good as the real thing, but we all know that sometimes convenience trumps quality. After a while, we might just come to think of foreigners as people who speak our own language in a kind of Google-accented pidgin.
That would be sad on so many levels.