Pink Slips For TESOL Teachers?
by Virginia Tong, Ph.D.

    Not long ago, I gave away my circa 1986 computer with the watch-crystal sized screen to my nephew, and upgraded to a state-of-the-art, techno-geek model equipped with a monitor so large that movie house owners flush with envy. It's hard drive draws enough power to give New York City an electrical brown-out. I've been using my digitized second brain to evaluate the various software programs designed to teach English, comparing them for interest level, ease of use, appropriateness for various populations, and so forth.
    I'm especially impressed by the language translation software that conducts written paraphrasing between languages. For example, college students can type term papers in their native Spanish, push a button to print it out in fluent German for a friend's proofreading for organization and content, enter those corrections, and print out a final document in near-perfect English for the monolingual professor's perusal. Some programs even include a minor voice recognition component that allows one to say the word "translate"... and it does!

    One late evening, while taking a break from long hours of reading my graduate students' papers (perhaps written in the manner described above), I settled back on my cozy couch with a fresh-brewed cup of Oolong and a newspaper, and tuned into a late night news program. With growing interest, I listened as the host and reporters presented segments on the amazing technological advances now being developed in computer engineering laboratories. While I found the chess-playing super computers and moon walking vehicles to be fascinating, one sequence made my paper and multilingual jaw drop.

    One short program segment presented an astounding speech recognition program now being fine-tuned in the AT&T laboratories. I watched in absolute wonderment as a non-Asian technician spoke English to the computer screen, and had his words spoken back to him in MANDARIN CHINESE! Holy cow! (*** holy cow in Chinese here***) It's likely that the reverse could also be accomplished by this astonishing machine. My amazement turned to dread as I discussed the program with a colleague. As we talked, one possible extension of this technological development jumped to mind: Could it eliminate the need for ESL and bilingual teachers? In the not-so-distant future, might we come to be viewed in the same reminiscent way as sundials, button hooks, buggy whips, and car engine cranks?

    Further reflection convinced us that TESOL teachers will probably still be found in public schools and community center night classes for some time to come. At the moment (and for the near future), speakers of different languages will only be able to converse from distant sources because the translated interaction requires a high-powered laboratory computer. However, one has to wonder how long it will be before the digitized translators are miniaturized, becoming easily transportable for everyday interactions. These dwarfish devises would probably appear first on the market in some form resembling a laptop computer.

    However, images of the "universal translator" badges worn by Star Trek characters to converse with monolingual Clingons, Romulans, and other assorted extraterrestrials quickly flash to mind. How long will it be before welre tapping our Lilliputian lapel pins to activate the diminutive devices' ability to translate our Earthly lingo?

    In the mean time, other "bugs" in the system still need to be squashed. While our present-day computers can conduct literal translations, idioms, vernacular, slang, and twists in wording are lost on them. For example, most fluent English speakers would know that the rather poorly- constructed statement "I saw the Empire State Building walking around New York." means that the speaker saw the massive monolithic structure on his or her recent vacation trip to "The Big Apple".  Speech synthesizing computers cannot yet make this distinction.

    However, given the continual technological leaps in software capabilities, it probably won't be too long before this linguistic glitch is corrected. We like to think that these soon-to-be-seen speech translation devices will serve as a wonderful learning tool for our ESL learners.

    Perhaps our students could talk to the computer in say, Russian, and hear their "echo" in English. This opportunity would allow them to practice for job interviews, anticipated party conversation topics, and other specific situations they might expect to encounter that day.

    Right now, we can't imagine the emotion and intonation necessary for optimal communication being mastered by these linguistic computers, but then we never imagined that tattoos and cigars would become fashionable. Could the day eventually arrive when we'll only be teaching English to those quaint, old-fashioned individuals who want to engage in the anachronistic practice of learning another language? One way or another, the future will bring change to society and our profession.
Well, if nothing else, perhaps this particular technological advance in translation will diffuse the English-only arguments. Anyway, while I continue to engage in the outdated practice of reading the newspaper to stay up on the changes in language and technology, maybe I'll start turning to the help wanted ads too.
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Virginia Tong, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the TESOL program at Hunter College.  She can be contacted at   She conducts staff development in methods for instructing students with limited English proficiency, helping immigrant students adjust to North America, and educating migrant children.

Thanks Virginia!