Thursday, March 3, 2011

Connected Knowledge and the language barrier

I've been mostly lurking these past couple of weeks on CCK11. I've enjoyed reading both assigned readings and reading through blog entries of participants. Most blog entries are in English, which isn't surprising considering that this MOOC is run in English, but at least once, if not, more times per week I've seen postings in Italian, French and Portuguese - I'm sure I've seen Spanish as well, but I really don't remember. I definitely saw some Spanish in LAK11.

While I do enjoy reading (good) content in English, it's always a breath of fresh air to read it in other languages! I minored in Italian and German as an undergraduate, I self-studied Spanish (in isolation, so my communicative competence isn't that great...but reading is OK) and I took 4 years of French in high school and I spent a year or so in French chat rooms in college (the early days of Yahoo! Chat).

For me reading in a second language isn't that difficult - it's challenging since I live in an anglophone environment, but it's not difficult (everyone likes a good challenge, no?) Most people, at least in the US anyway, aren't like me, it seems like most are monolingual anglophones that have either been taught to dislike polylingualism (aka "English is good enough" or "everyone speaks English"), or they've been taught to fear languages in a similar vain as fearing math ("I'm no good at Math" or "Oh, French is hard!").

This poses a serious problem, in my opinion, because we now have a natural barrier for connections to knowledge sources. If you don't understand a language then it is impossible to gain access to that knowledge or information node! Sure, there is Google Translate and other machine translation, but as a best-case scenario these tools just give you broad brushstrokes. We're nowhere near to the level of the Universal Translator as seen in Star Trek. You could circumnavigate and find translators to get you what you need from that node, but how much do you lose by not having a direct connection?

As a side note for you all to ponder (along the lines of if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it): are the readings really assigned if there is no carrot or stick attached to those assigned readings?
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