Learning vs The Ear Bud

Tom Nickel
5 min readOct 8, 2017


Steel driving man vs Steel driving machine

I’m in the middle of an early 21st century variant of the John Henry story, human against machine. Except the ‘machine’ is Artificial Intelligence and a universal translator is not the same thing as language learning.

Fifteen weeks ago I started learning Khmer, because I’m planning to return to Cambodia soon to work informally with some people there. A few days ago, Google demonstrated real-time language translation, built into the Bluetooth ear buds of their new Pixel2 Smartphone.

“Kamei Language” in Khmer

I’ve never been very good at languages. That’s why I’m surprised to be actually enjoying the experience so far, even though learning Khmer is hard, takes up a lot of time, and I’m still not very good at it. I study every day and twice a week I have a Skype call with Vanna, my teacher in Phnom Penh. I have gotten to the point where she can ask me simple questions in Khmer and I can answer them in my tortured version of her native language. When the hour is over I’m both exhilarated and exhausted.

Then along comes a device that fits in my ear and translates everything, a science fiction construct suddenly become non-fiction, for $160 (plus the phone, the app, and the data connection).

Google Pixel Buds

It makes me feel a little stupid. Part of me is, like, sure it’s kind of fun learning Khmer, but if I’d just use the damn ear buds I could still have my Khmer and do something else with all those hours. It wasn’t the time that got John Henry, though — it was the effort.

John Henry won. And then his heart gave out — so many ways you can look at that story, so many messages to take from it. Artisanal is still, after all, the symbol of quality. It’s the human touch that makes each one special. Translation by-the-numbers can’t help but be as nuanced as a Starbucks Grande. On the other hand — there it’ll be, right in your ear and delivering the goods. If quality of translation was the only thing at stake, I’d stop learning Khmer tomorrow.

There are three reasons I will continue my lessons. The first is obvious and frequently stated, but true nevertheless — people appreciate the effort. It’s a sign of respect, and people notice if a non-native speaker goes beyond “Thank You!” and “How Spicy is that Curry?” But that’s not the main reason why I’m doing it.

Mandarin attended by domestic servant

I traveled to China regularly for a period of several years and took lessons in Mandarin during that time. When that job ended, so did my lessons, but I went deep enough to feel how differently I had to think to express myself logographically. I’m no linguistics expert, but it became clear quickly that graphic symbols make limited functional communication very simple, throughout the vastness and diversity of China for instance. Expressing complex ideas, on the other hand, requires a tremendous vocabulary from years of study, which is how a few bureaucrat-scholars, or Mandarins, ran the Empire.

Khmer is not like Chinese. It is phonetic, but its script is not considered to be a “true alphabet,” because the vowels are shown not as separate symbols but as diacritic markings, little teeny decorations they look like to me, around the consonants.

There are 23 (or so) of these funny looking vowels, with two pronunciations each. That’s a lot more vowel sounds than I’m used to. It suggests a level of auditory tuning I have not reached.

I’ve noticed other things about Khmer that make me wonder, like having no tense for all practical purposes. Verbs don’t change according to past, present or future — when is picked up from context. I love not-conjugating. Hearing someone say ‘I go yesterday’ is all I need, without having to figure out ‘go’ vs ‘went’ vs ‘will go’ too. I also like not having articles, like ‘a’ and ‘the,’ I mean, who needs ‘em?

Where I’m most likely to screw up in Phnom Penh is by misusing the terms for ‘You’ or ‘Him and Her,’ which are carefully laid out according to age and status. For me, all ‘You’s are created equal. Not in Cambodia.

With a universal translator I would not have any awareness of these dimensions of Mandarin or Khmer. I don’t know if that matters, or how to measure the value of awareness. It has changed the way I think about language. Maybe it’s changed the way I think.

I said there were three reasons I will continue, and it’s a good thing, because I don’t think a little appreciation and some elementary cultural linguistics would be enough. Nothing would be enough if I wasn’t loving the whole little system I’ve put together — the flashcards I make, the textbook, the Skype lessons, the Youtube videos. I’m a learning junkie and I have been since I was about eight. Language has never worked this well for me before. I’m glad I found it, even if it is ridiculous.

The improbability is part of the fun. It’s basically nuts to do this, to invest this time. I’m 68 and I have cancer. How long does it take to become as accurate and as fast as the Pixel Bud? Plus, the AI will only get better and cheaper, while I won’t. But here’s the thing — I’m not racing the Pixel Bud. I’ve added some joy to my life with the chance of some respect and understanding on the side. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do any of that before I started.

My efforts with Khmer are not my first learning high. I have them regularly, at different scales. Learning the facts can take a few hours, or much longer, depending. Learning how is almost always more of a commitment. The Khmer language makes this distinction clearly with ‘dawng,’ knowing a fact about something, as opposed to ‘jeh,’ knowing how to do something. I have also learned a third aspect of knowing in Khmer, which is ‘sgoal,’ knowing more deeply about, often about someone.

I have felt each of these forms of knowing in my Khmer learning project. With a universal translator I probably would have missed them all, which would have been too bad, because the someone I now know about more deeply is myself.



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos