Just a few decades ago most people who wanted to learn a foreign language had to overcome many obstacles.
Europe was divided into two parts that could not communicate with each other, by something that Winston Churchill named the Iron Curtain for over 50 years, until 1989. (I got through it, but it took me a very long time to figure out how to do it without being shot or caught and sent to prison).
It was very difficult to obtain even a tourist visa to visit China for many decades. There was no Internet radio or instant streaming of foreign movies to your large screen TV. You could only listen to foreign languages on a few nearby radio stations on medium and long wavelengths, usually with a lot of static.
If you lived in Western Europe or United States, it was quite easy to travel from US or England to France or West Germany or Italy and vice versa if you were interested in other cultures and languages, but this was not something that people in most countries on this planet were able to do quite as easily.
With the fall of communism in Europe, the evolution of the system in China from a communist system into a capitalist system run by a communist party, and the expansion of the European Union a few years ago, it is now much easier to travel for at least a billion people. China still calls itself socialist, but in many respects it is more capitalist than the United States. I don’t think that Chinese bankers would be bailed out by their government, that is what socialist countries used to do. It they were found to have committed crime, they would end up in prison.
Technology and Internet made it possible for example for most people to read any newspaper in any language, except of course for a few billions of them who live in third world countries and can’t afford such luxuries as Internet.
So how many more people are learning foreign languages now than 30 or 40 years ago? I don’t know the answer to this question, and Google does not even understand what I mean by this question. Some people are probably taking advantage of the new opportunities to learn a foreign language, but my guess is that for the most part, this is not the case.
I think that in spite of all of these changes, people in most countries became almost as lazy and self-absorbed when it comes to learning foreign languages as speakers of languages such as English, Russian, French or German, who traditionally have an aversion to learning foreign languages because as far as they are concerned, everybody should learn their languages first.
After all, even if you are a speaker of a “language of limited diffusion”, you can now use machine translation to “translate” just about anything into your language.
The one foreign language that has become sort of popular recently is Chinese. But I think that this is mostly a fad and that only a tiny fraction of people who start learning Chinese will become fluent in it because it is so difficult to learn. The reason why there is so much interest in the Chinese language now in the West is easy to see. When Nixon visited China in 1972, the output of the entire Chinese economy corresponded to 1/37th of US economy. It is now 1/3rd of US economy and in a few years, Chinese economic output is expected to overtake US economy.
Especially here in the United States, foreign languages seem to be taught to ensure that most students never learn much. My sons were learning French and German in high school. Neither of them knows anything beyond a few words, although both have traveled quite extensively in Europe.
The attitude of American kids to foreign languages makes sense: foreign language is something that you have to learn well enough to pass the test, but then you can forget about it because knowledge of foreign languages is completely useless.
Incidentally, this is very similar to how kids in Eastern and Central Europe (East Germany, Poland Czechoslovakia, Hungary) viewed the Russian language a few decades ago. They had to learn it from third grade at least until they graduated from high school, but most of them somehow managed not to learn anything in all those years because the language was absolutely useless – unless your goal in life was to read War and Peace in the original language.
26 years ago I, when I was working for a Japanese company in San Francisco, my boss asked me to give a lecture about the English language to Japanese school children who were on an educational tour to America. “In Japanese?” I asked him. “No, in English, this is an educational tour”, was the answer.
I ended up mumbling something for 20 minutes or so about the differences between Japanese and English to several hundred preteen Japanese children in a packed large auditorium.
The kids were listening to me in silence, seemingly with rapt attention. They were not fidgeting in their seats, or poking each other and whispering or laughing as most children their age would.
And then I realized – these are Japanese kids. They do not understand a single word I am saying. Their mothers felt much better about paying all that money for a tour because it included a lecture about the English language, and that is the only reason why I am here.
These kids now have their own children who still don’t understand English, because just like my children, they will only learn a foreign language to pass a test and then they will quickly forget everything they learned.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I think that that we translators have nothing to worry about when it comes to our job security.
Most people are too damn lazy to spend years trying to learn a foreign language, which is the only way how to do something like that, and that will never change.
People are simply waiting for machine translation that will work just like human translators. It is just around the corner, and so is a new, inexpensive gadget: it will be called Universal Translator, it will translate flawlessly anything from any language to any other language and it will be sold in major electronics stores.