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English and AI

This was a comment from the exasperated parent of a school-going boy. He was already struggling having to learn 2 languages - English and Hindi, and multiple subjects like Language and Literature in both. As if it was not enough, the school had sent a form to select a 3rd language – French, German, Spanish, Japanese or Mandarin. Choice overload, I would say!

But to what end? With Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant embedded in your houses in the future, and in most smartphones already, translation has become easy. Conversations can be translated on the fly, and this technology is really improving rapidly. So, in all this, is it really imperative to force our kids to learn a 2nd and a 3rd language, even if they do not have the knack for it?

In fact, I would say that the second language that the schools should be focusing upon apart from the first language (and it can be anything – preferably the kid’s mother tongue) should be Machine Language (ML). This is the most basic form of the computer languages that we hear about and contains the code that allows a computer to understand whatever we are saying.

With Artificial Intelligence (AI) in devices all around us, and the Internet of Things (IoT) becoming omnipresent, we are looking at an explosion of smart devices all around us. In such an environment, our kids will do well to understand how technology operates, at a deeply fundamental level, and not just at the surface (user or programming interface) as that will keep changing as newer systems develop. My father had learnt FORTRAN at his workplace, while I learnt Logo, C/C++ and Java in school and college, but today kids learn Python. These will keep developing, but the basic language that interacts with the hardware has not changed that much. And developing a strong understanding of this deep interaction would be the real arbitrage that our kids can leverage.

So, as parents, we should really focus on helping our kids develop a primary language, one that allows them to connect their thoughts with the outside world to communicate with other humans and a secondary language, that will allow them to communicate with machines. Except if the idea is to make them into spies! In which case, bring on all of them – French, German, Mandarin, etc.

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