Collège Champittet
23 November, 2022

Message from the Head of School - December 2022

Message from the Head of School - December 2022 - ArticlePullQuote
We can realistically imagine a near future where speakers of different languages conduct a discussion with immediate computer translation of good quality.
Message from the Head of School - December 2022 From myth to technology: from Babel to DeepL 1

Dear Champiteans,


Before Christmas, I would like to share this short text dedicated to multilingualism; I hope it will amuse you. The link between Babel and online translation softwares is of course romanticised.

According to the Bible, after the flood, people all spoke the same language. In their delirium of power and tyrannical will, they set about building a city called Babel and a tower that touches the sky, thus protecting themselves from another flood and freeing themselves from God's punishment. Then God multiplied their language and scattered them over the face of the earth. They no longer understood each other.

Today, the number of languages spoken on earth is difficult to estimate, but there seems to be a consensus on approximately 7'000. It is also said that almost 30'000 languages have appeared and disappeared, in a continuous renewal process. Today, the 10 most spoken languages in the world are, in order, English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, French, Russian, Portuguese and Urdu.

A few years ago, I remember using the translation tools offered by various software or online applications, with catastrophic results. Today, not a week goes by without my colleagues and I having a text translated (this one for example) using DeepL or Google Translate or other online translators. The results are surprisingly good; it is simply a matter of proofreading and correcting some of the terms in our educational jargon. What is even more incredible, is that I can obtain the translation of a web page in my favourite language directly online. I have also had a conversation with a parent from Asia through a spoken translator on his cell phone.


So, the cycle of dispersion started at Babel is over: all people can once again communicate easily. Not in one language, but through the immediate interface that artificial intelligence provides.

The end of teaching mathematics was predicted when the electronic calculator was introduced in 1972. One could therefore question the necessity of language learning, or map-reading skills in the age of smartphones with integrated GPS, or memorising content which is now available on the web. Is it still necessary to learn how to write when I can dictate everything to Siri (Apple), or Alexa (Amazon), Cortana or Google Assistant, or even to my Tesla domestic robot in the making? They can all transcribe my story into text.

You have surely already guessed the school's answer to these questions. Language structures thought, handwriting activates kinetic memory, mathematics reinforce logic. In short, it is through activity that we develop our abilities. To "outsource our brain" would weaken us. On the other hand, let’s not sink into technophobia; learning to master technologies strengthens us by putting these tools at our service, rather than us becoming their slaves.