We are fortunate in this information age to have at our fingertips an ocean of knowledge so vast it’s hard to conceptualize. Wikipedia alone would comprise almost 3,100 volumes were it to be printed and bound–and that’s just the English portion. Students today can access higher education from anywhere on their own schedule–with even elite university courses available free of charge online. And professionals in every industry can use online training to learn new skills that advance their careers.
But there is one big impediment that prevents many people from benefiting from all this knowledge: language. Ebooks, classes, and online courses do you no good if you can’t understand them. This greatly disadvantages certain communities and can threaten cohesiveness in academic and work environments.
However, emerging technologies are poised to help level the playing field. Tools like machine translation, virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence are already improving educational outcomes. In the future, we predict these technologies will coalesce to create multilingual learning environments that open more doors for more people around the world.
Tools that are making education more accessible for multilingual learners
Traditional learning models used standardized lectures and educational materials that were provided to all students. These materials were typically available only in the dominant language of the educator, making learning challenging for migrants and minority-language communities. And the cost of translating materials in order to make them more accessible was prohibitive.
Fortunately, students today are benefiting from machine translation technology that can translate lessons into their mother tongue. Neural machine translation (NMT) engines such as Google Translate can provide fast and highly accurate translations at little or no cost. This gives multilingual students and their educators flexible and affordable options for making course materials accessible.
However, even the most advanced NMT lacks the nuance of a human translator or interpreter. It should not be used on its own to provide multilingual learners with access to educational materials. Instead, machine translation should be paired with human editors and educators who can ensure that students are getting accurate information. In fact, the best multilingual educational materials are not just translated, but localized by experienced language service providers that offer professional translation services who understand the culture and needs of individual student groups.
Another useful technology that is helping multilingual students access education is language learning software. There are a wide variety of applications on the market today that can help learners acquire a new language. And the cognitive benefits of being bilingual go far beyond accessing foreign-language educational materials. Simply learning a second language has been shown to increase creativity, improve concentration, enhance communication skills, and boost memory.
However, it takes time to develop the level of fluency needed to grasp the basics of a new language, let alone the jargon and concepts of a particular curriculum. Expecting students to learn a new language at the same time they are learning a new subject is impractical, at best.
The future of multilingual learning is immersive and personalized
More and more, EdTech is making education increasingly immersive and personalized for students at every level, from elementary school to university to on-the-job training. While still relatively new, these technologies are promising to revolutionize how we acquire knowledge.
Augmented and virtual reality are enabling students to see and interact with computer generated images that can help them learn about the world around them. Classrooms can use these technologies for simulated experiments, field trips, or creating 3D interactive models. Medical students, for example, can engage in virtual reality surgeries as part of their training. This enhances the level of engagement and helps the student better understand and remember lessons.
Artificial intelligence is used to provide personalized lesson plans that adapt to individual students. AI has the ability to analyze how a particular student is performing and deliver content tailored to their specific needs. It can also create assessments that adapt questions based on the student’s past performance. An example of this is the language learning app DuoLingo that adapts lessons based on the user’s progress.
Gamification uses game-based elements and mechanics, such as points, badges, leaderboards, and rewards to motivate and engage learners in their lessons. This has proven a successful strategy to encourage students to complete tasks and achieve their learning goals.
In the future, we expect these various technologies–augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence, gamification, and machine translation–to be combined to create immersive, multilingual learning environments that can be adapted to the needs of individual learners.
Case studies of technology enhancing multilingual learning
All around the world educators are finding that technology can help present information in ways that make it more understandable for multilingual learners.
In Bangladesh, there was a study assessing the effect of localized digital content on educational outcomes. Teachers there were empowered to adapt publicly accessible digital content from the Internet into the local language, Bangla. What they found was that students exposed to the localized content were more motivated to learn and had increased creativity and analytical capacity.
Going much further, the University of Oregon has a pioneering program called Virtual and Augmented Reality for Language Training, or VAuLT. This program uses augmented and virtual reality to create immersive, play-oriented experiences that help students learn languages such as Arabic, Mandarin, English, and German. According to the university’s website, “These mixed-reality encounters spark exploration of critical language content embedded throughout various dimensions of the local environment.”
What we see is that from the simple adaptation of content into a learner’s mother tongue to the incorporation of advanced technologies that allow learners to practice new skills, technology enhances educators’ ability to deliver more personalized and engaging lessons for multilingual learners.
Emerging technology has the potential to significantly impact the way multilingual learning content is created, delivered, and consumed. In our ever more globalized economy, these new tools improve communication, enhance employment opportunities, and provide more democratized access to information. By making e-learning multilingual, immersive, and personalized, we make it more accessible, inclusive, and effective for learners around the globe.