Friday, 12 April 2013

The humble pictograph – could it lead to the death of learning a foreign language?

This week The Telegraph published a story citing that using pictographs to combat the language barrier could lead to the demise in learning a foreign language.  It states that linguists have constantly attempted to simplify communication between cultures saying that this system (the use of images) can already surpass language barriers and communicate information.  According to some linguists, this trend is set to increase and many predict that pictographs will be the future of language.

The article then poses the question: if we can reduce language barriers in everyday situations, to what extent do we reduce the incentive for language learning? If we can navigate a foreign place with signs and pictures, doesn’t language study become a waste of time?

An interesting topic indeed; it’s certainly got our thoughts racing here at i-interpret4u.  But our view of the above is this: people have always used sign language, people have always used images and, people have always used speech to communicate.  This is nothing new.  The suggestion that an increase in the use of the pictograph will lead to a decline in the learning of languages is a non-starter.  There are already substantial statistics out there and physical evidence available (in the shape of recent language department closures across many universities) to support the fact that there is a big decline in the numbers of British people opting to learn a foreign language.  But is this really a revelation?  Brits are notoriously well-known for being rather laid-back when it comes to learning the local lingo overseas.

The idea that pictographs surpass language barriers may be true in some cases, but certainly not in all.  Like the classic ‘phrase book’, the pictograph serves a purpose if you want to know where the nearest restroom is (providing the sign is in sight of course).  What it can’t do is overcome a language barrier from a conversational point of view.  Nor can it overcome a language barrier if you find yourself lost and in need of directions from a local, or you lose your passport and need to speak to an official.  The article suggests pictographs will reduce language barriers in everyday situations but surely the above are also everyday situations?  The truth is, any of these scenarios and more, could occur at any point.

In conclusion, does reducing the language barrier mean that learning a language is a waste of time?  Well that’s not for us to say; there are arguably many valuable skills to be gained from increasing your linguistic aptitude.  But in our opinion, anything that helps to overcome a language barrier is a positive thing.  The fact is, Brits aren’t renowned for learning languages and this won’t change (pictographs or no pictographs).  So it makes sense that there are a number of different tools available out there to make communicating abroad easier no matter what the situation.


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