Does it still make sense to learn new languages?

I got my first real job offer in the investment business while I was partying at a nightclub in Madrid.

My business school had a campus there so I thought it would be a great place to finish my Bachelor’s degree, learn Spanish and have way too much fun...

  "You know nothing about markets!? You'll do just fine!"

"You know nothing about markets!? You'll do just fine!"

That night, I got into a conversation with this guy to who I had just been introduced.

When he learned that I fluently spoke five European languages, he said: “Come to my office on Monday, I’d like to talk to you about a position at my firm…”

Just like that...

He ran a brokerage desk at one of the leading local securities firms in town.

It was 1992.  Spain’s capital markets were opening up to foreign investors and I was in the right place at the right time.

I knew nothing at all about bond markets, but that didn’t matter. The fact that I could pick up the phone and speak to investors all over Europe in their own language got me the job even before I went to the ‘interview’.

"You'll figure all that other stuff out once you get started" He said.

How I miss the nineties!

Like most of my fellow Belgians, I have a thing for languages. Where I am from, speaking three is the norm and having five isn't really that exceptional. But in Spain - especially back in those days - it was very much like having a super power.

Eventually, I also learned Portuguese and enough Italian to carry a conversation. My 6.5 languages continued to lift the tide of my career. It was the prime feature on my resume and it went a long way in international finance!

But the thing is that I never really believed that it made that much of a difference. I've come to think that the idea of language skills giving you an edge is a mostly a myth.

As I constantly traveled to different European capitals, I would say that seven out of ten people I visited saw it as an opportunity to practice their English. 

But I guess this language thing is a myth that we all want to believe so we just play along and give it more lip service than it deserves.

But why am I talking about this?

It is certainly not my intention to toot my horn, but I thought it serves as a great example of the point I’m trying to make with this article: the fact that disruptive trends already lurk under the surface long before they become game changers. 

Let me clarify what I mean with this:

It is about the idea that innovation lives among us in disguise long before revealing itself.

I’m writing this article during the week that Google announced the launch of its live translation earbuds. I know it came as quite a surprise to most of us because not that long ago, people would roll their eyes when I’d suggest that artificial intelligence-driven simultaneous translation would soon render the knowledge of foreign languages obsolete. 

But if you've been following the advances in translation technology, you kind of knew this was coming...

Last September, Zero-Shot translation technology came online for the first time. It might be one of the most important breakthroughs in recent history. The problem was that nobody was paying attention because we were having too much fun watching Hillary and Donald throw mud at each other as the height of the presidential campaign.

If you haven’t used google translate since then, try it again. You will be amazed with what it can do!

One of the reasons that this technology was such breakthrough because it wasn’t created by humans. Google essentially asked an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm the following question: “So, why don’t you come up with a good way to translate languages". The AI said "Aye, aye Captain" and shortly afterwards it came back with Zero-Shot translation. 


One year later, it runs on ear buds that whisper simultaneous translations into your ear.

I don’t want to get too ‘techy' on you here, but the Zero-Shot algorithm figured out how to seamlessly translate between any language by creating a functional language of its own. 

It is able to convert language pairs never before seen explicitly by the system. But what is really freakish about Zero-Shot is that, despite no human intervention, the way it ‘thinks’ is eerily similar to the way humans would go about it. This is when machine learning gets creepy, fascinating or even somewhat religious. Take your pick.

I get into all of that some other time.


The thing is that attempts to use devices to translate has been around for a long time. Have you ever heard of the Rosetta Stone? Napoleon’s people discovered it in 1799. It was a rock with the same text translated hieroglyphs, demotic script, and Greek.  

That was the Zero-Shot of the 19th century because it finally allowed us to decipher hieroglyphs and, in turn, unlock more secrets about ancient Egypt. 

So basically, this is yet another example that goes to show that the sudden technological innovations that freak us out are usually already amongst us, keeping a low profile, constantly evolving and going about their business while most of us aren't paying attention.

And when these breakthroughs reveal themselves, we call it 'disruption'. At first it always seems like a threat, but they are really nothing more than the gradual systematisation of our core human needs and desires. 

First we create it, then we reject it and finally we chase it.

No matter how much you fear, mistrust, or want to reject disruption,  know that it is a mostly product of humanity (at least for now). 

Take 2 minutes to watch this short extract from one of my talks, I speak about what those needs and desires are that drive us and machines, to be so inventive:


Here’s an essay by Google about Zero-Shot translation technology in case it got you thinking. It is nerdy, but oh so fascinating :-)

Curious to know more about this talk?

In case you or someone you know would be interested in featuring a talk about human strategies for a virtual world at an event, feel free to get in touch with me via my speaker page.