I hear more and more about automatic translation technology. Skype recently announced their Skype Translator Preview – An Exciting Journey to a New Chapter in Communication.
This translation technology will make it possible for people to communicate via Skype across languages. Two people can speak two different languages, and the conversation is automatically translated for each person to hear in his or her own language.
This technology is not surprising. Google translate is already quite accurate for many languages, although not for all. The more closely related the languages are in vocabulary and structure, the more accurate the translations are. Recently, text-to-speech technology has greatly improved, enabling any text to be accurately voiced for someone to listen to.
Then there is dictation software. After all, I am now able to dictate this short article to my iPhone 6 Plus. A few minor corrections on the computer and the article is done. The thought that these translation technologies could be combined in an automatic simultaneous interpreting capability does not surprise me.
I will be traveling to Asia on Sunday. I will be visiting Korea, Myanmar and Vietnam. I am sure that I will take advantage of Google translate, at least in Vietnam. I have already tested it out for Vietnamese. I will be able to say something in English into my iPhone and Google translate will give me the Vietnamese equivalent, not only in writing, but also in text-to-speech format.
Thus I will be able to ask a Vietnamese person where a particular store is, how much something costs, where the bus stop is and so forth I will also be able to ask the Vietnamese person to speak into my iPhone with the answer in Vietnamese. Google translate on my iPhone plus will then translate this back into English for me. Probably the translation technology on Skype works along similar principles.
How is this likely to affect language learning? I recently did a Google search for articles on the subject and came across a blog post by a Benny the Irish Polyglot where he discusses a product called Vocre. Benny points out that these translations are not always reliable. To me, this is a minor problem. The quality of these translations can only improve over time, since they are based the accumulation of context examples of ever increasing quantity, and in this way the context based-accuracy improves. I already find that Google translate is much better than it was, and usually serves my purpose.
So I don’t think that it is the accuracy of this technology that will be the main reason why it will not replace the need to learn languages.
Rather it is because language learning is not just about learning to ask for directions and ordering beer. Language learning, in my opinion, is about connecting with a different language group, getting an insight into how these people think and getting exposure to their history and culture.
This new automatic interpreting technology is helpful for situations like the ones that I will face in Myanmar and Vietnam as a tourist, where I don’t speak the language, and very specific questions that I need to have answered. It is an interim communication tool. It is not a substitute for learning the language.
On the contrary, if after visiting Vietnam and Myanmar, I find that one of these countries is sufficiently fascinating, I may very well want to learn the language in order to get closer to those people, their history and their culture. I may simply want to be able to interact naturally with speakers of those languages, not via some interpreting device.
In those languages which I am able to speak fairly well, I have had wonderful personal interactions with people. If I think of the interesting and fulfilling things that I have read and listened to from the history or the literature of those countries, the reward of actually learning the language is obvious. Using these translation tools does not come close.
I have trouble imagining myself sitting down in a restaurant, or beside someone in an airplane, or in a bar, or on a park bench and engaging them in a far-reaching conversation using this kind of translation technology.
Just as the advent of the computer increased the consumption of paper, I tend to think that the introduction of this kind of technology will increase the interest of people in language learning, and not decrease it. It is a short-term bridge or crutch which enables communication across certain language barriers, but not a longer-term resource for really getting to know people and discovering other cultures.
This new translation technology will again make our world smaller, bring people closer together, and as a result, people will want to take the next step in getting closer to people who share their world, and learn their language.