Faculty Feature: Dr. David Lisenby and the Magic of Language

The Hilltop Monitor had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. David Lisenby, associate professor of Spanish and director of the Honors Institute in Critical Thinking, to discuss all things Spanish – from the importance of learning a language to reading and analyzing literature to the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) in writing and in translation work.

Lisenby teaches many courses at all levels of Spanish, but his favorite is SPA 315: Textual Analysis and Composition. For Lisenby, the course marks a shift in Spanish pedagogy: the first four courses in the Spanish sequence focus on grammar and vocabulary. In 315, though, students that are SPA majors and minors literally level up and focus on “[reading and studying] literature and social issues in Spanish that are not designed for English language students who are learning Spanish,” Lisenby explained. While his specialty is in Latin American literature and translation, he said he enjoys SPA 315 because it empowers students to “[talk] about social issues and… [get] better at expressing themselves [in Spanish].”

Lisenby was on sabbatical last semester, receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He used that sabbatical to translate Abilio Estévez’s “How I Met the Sower of Trees,” a collection of short stories narrated “from spaces of queer desire separated from home and homeland.”

Over the course of our conversation, Lisenby brought up the rise of new AI translation models, like OpenAI’s ChatGPT-3 model, which is now on par with Google Translate when it comes to translation accuracy. Lisenby rejected the idea that machine translation software could ever be close to perfect; while ChatGPT-3 is decent at translating ideas, it can’t capture the emotional hook of literature, so it’s still a long way off, he explained.

This rise in AI doesn’t remove the human need to learn – or translate – languages, though. The impacts of learning language, noted Lisenby, come in our experiences with other people: “[No technological intervention] can take the place of human-to-human contact, and even learning a little bit of another language makes it possible to have human-to-human contact with someone who doesn’t speak English, and I find that magical.”

To people who find learning a language daunting, Lisenby is empathetic: “There is no shortcut to learning a new language brilliantly and easily.” It’s not easy to learn a new language, and it can seem impossible at times, but Lisenby is confident that anyone can do it with help. He suggests finding conversation partners to maximize language input and output, further emphasizing the human aspect of learning a language.

As AI gets better and better, students may be tempted to let it do the hard work of language and translation for them. With the rise of ChatGPT and other machine learning tools, many fields are having to adapt. Will we bow down to the omnipotent AI overlords? Maybe. Machine learning may get better at writing films or stories, or at solving math problems, or whatever else we throw at it. However, as Lisenby noted: “There will always be a place for human-to-human interaction,” and learning a new language is a great way to find that interaction.

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