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The Importance of Language Learning in the Digital Era


"Language is special in that it relies on a lot of knowledge about language but it also relies on a huge amount of common-sense knowledge about the world, and those two go together in very subtle ways," – Noah Goodman, Stanford psychology.

Human intelligence is a very complex thing. One of many intrinsic traits and values of a human is the ability to understand language, not just speak it. Language has many forms: verbal language, body language, sign language, implicit communication – it's the very thing that makes us intimately connected with the environment surrounding us.

Language is also many things at once. A poet or a writer can evoke emotions with the language they use; marketing strategies use specific language techniques to persuade a potential buyer; a teacher can ingrain a new concept to a student's line of thinking; it's a wonderful thing. Without language, surely human civilization would not have thrived this far.

So, what role does language play in a society that has progressively become digitalized? You may have heard the term "Look for a job that cannot be replaced by a machine." It is true. According to research by professors at Boston University, automation has replaced human workers in the US and have reduced the employment rate by 0,18-0,34% (Acemoglu & Restrepo, 2017). While it is not a very concerning number, the rates are increasing, The World Economic Forum (WEF) concluded in a report, "a new generation of smart machines could potentially replace existing human jobs."

By 2025, WEF predicted automation would supplant 85 million jobs and work side by side with humans in a 50:50 ratio (Kelly, 2020). People with inadequate skills to compete in this digital world will be displaced – or at least have to reinvent and undergo retraining to find more opportunities in this brave new world. Banking, financial service employees, factory workers, office staff, even surgeons will face job loss as machines could perform many amounts of mundane tasks that need comprehension.

There are, however, various occupations in which machines and artificial intelligence could hardly replace. Those are that rely on originality, compassion, emotional intelligence, and creativity. As advanced as humanity and artificial intelligence have developed, a deep emotional appreciation and understanding of language are still one of many problems which robot scientists face.

For example, a researcher from Google, Quoc Le, generated a program capable of having an extensive conversation by feeding it dialogues and lines from 18,900 movies. Although it can respond to many open-ended questions, one problem remains: the machine does not know in reality what it's talking about. When Le asked, "How many legs does a cat have?" it replied, "Four, I think." Then Le tried another question, "How many legs does a centipede have?" which resulted in a peculiar answer, "Eight."

The program can understand basic language structures and how some elements can go together – but it has no appreciation and knowledge of the common-sense world as humans do. That is because language is mainly arbitrary symbols (Knight, 2016). Language is integrated into the brain in a very unique way, in that it connects to us in more than intellectual level, but also emotional, social, and even spiritual – it is what distinguishes human intelligence from "artificial" intelligence – which, as the name suggests, an illusion of intelligence itself, and a very limited one at that.

Jobs like designers, artists, writers, musicians, psychologists; ones that supposedly have a complex emotional response and meaningful language interactions between humans are hardly replaced by machines. It requires abstract thoughts, innovations, original ideas, and imagination. As director of Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, Fei-Fei Li noted, "We [humans] are terrible with computing huge data, but we are great at abstractions and creativity."

So, yes, it is possible language may continue to play a huge role in this digital era. Without knowledge and appreciation of language, the barrier between humans will broaden and societies will have difficulties communicating with each other. It is also a way to appreciate humanity and how far we've come as a civilization because language comprehension is hard for a machine to imitate.


Acemoglu, D., & Restrepo, P. (2017). Robots and Jobs: Evidence from U.S. Labor Markets. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Economics Working Paper Series, 88.

Kelly, J. (2020, October 27). U.S. Lost Over 60 Million Jobs - Now Robots, Tech, and Artificial Intelligence will Take Millions More. Retrieved from Forbes.com: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2020/10/27/us-lost-over-60-million-jobs-now-robots-tech-and-artificial-intelligence-will-take-millions-more/

Knight, W. (2016, August 9). AI's Language Problem. Retrieved from technologyreview.com: https://www.technologyreview.com/2016/08/09/158125/ais-language-problem/

  Writer: Radya Ayufa Putri

Editor: Junanda Amriansyah


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