As someone who fries brain cells everyday by studying Arabic, I’m always interested in the latest translating tools and technologies. These tools are a double-edged sword. Used properly, technology is a huge aid to a foreign language student. I use a variety of tools–such as Google Translate and Firefox plugins–to streamline my study time, quickly look up unfamiliar words or phrases, and self-edit my Arabic writing. These tools can also be dangerous. One of my DLI classmates always kept his laptop open in class; any time he wanted to speak, he would type the sentence into Google Translate and read the result. He could not speak without this crutch. Not exactly a recommended technique for learning Arabic.
Google has done a pretty remarkable job creating software that can translate written text, but the holy grail is a system that can translate speech. That’s why this article caught my attention: Google leaps language barrier with translator phone. Google has been simultaneously researching and developing two powerful technologies: its translation system and voice recognition-driven search. Google is confident that it can combine these technologies and have a translating phone on the market within the next few years. We’ll see. This is a tough problem to crack, but if anyone can do it, I think Google can.
When real-time speech translation hits the market–and I think it’s only a question of when–I’m curious what the impact will be on our world. On balance, I think such a system would be an enormous step forward. It would bring the world closer together, humanize other cultures, and create new possibilities for global cooperation. On the other hand, this technology will create an enormous barrier to actually learning foreign languages. A lot of people won’t believe foreign language learning is necessary anymore. Those do wish to learn languages will have a hard time escaping all this auto-translation and actually practicing their language. I, for one, still think learning languages is important. As I’ve written before, speaking a foreign language isn’t just about translating content from one format to another; it’s a means of building trusting relationships across cultures. I worry that could get lost.
We also have a long way to go with quality. If you want to amuse yourself, check out Translation Party. You type a phrase in English, and the website uses Google to translate it into Japanese, then translates the Japanese back into English. This repeats over and over until the two translations finally match. I typed in “Who is the leader of your village?” After 50 iterations the website gave up and warned me the phrase will probably never reach equilibrium. Its final translation? “Many other people, many of our people, the people of our village and how many other educators who and how many?” Yikes.