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Language soft skills are key to AI future



The aim of turning Britain into a “21st-century exporting superpower” is so laudable that it even brings together Remainers and Brexiters. But it was ironic that Liam Fox’s speech setting out the aim of boosting Britain’s exports, to 35pc of GDP from 30pc, was delivered in the two-week period where A-level and GSCE results highlight a continuous drop in interest in studying foreign languages.

The Government seems to lack the joined-up thinking on the extra skills needed to increase exports – not that the increased support from embassies and government departments are unwelcome.

Businesses need language skills. A CBI/Pearson employer survey showed more than 50pc of businesses rated French as useful for their business; Mandarin scored over 35pc with others wanting everything from Russian to Japanese. Almost 40pc of employers were dissatisfied with graduates’ international cultural awareness, compared to 30pc the year before.

Jack Ma, one of China’s, and the world’s, most successful entrepreneurs, highlighted yet another reason to learn languages. The founder of Alibaba, whose ecommerce and tech company’s market capitalisation stands at $468bn (£364bn), says: “Computers are always smarter than you. AI will kill a lot of jobs. People need to develop soft skills to compete.”

Among those soft skills, language skills are paramount. They open the mind to empathy, to new experiences, to continuous learning, to humour, teamwork and cultural awareness – elements that together distinguish humans from robots.

What about wearable translating devices? Why go through years of hassle to learn a language when technology does it for you in an instant? Machines are useful, but they cannot reproduce the subtleties of language, the personal connection, and the delight of making mistakes.

Lastly, there is the myth that if you are not gifted for languages, you shouldn’t bother. Nonsense. Unless the Dutch have a genetic quirk that allows them all to learn a couple of languages by the age of 16, or the Germans have a peculiar affinity for English, we are all capable of picking up enough of a foreign language to communicate.

Read More: The Telegraph