Advancement in real time translation devices – end of language learning?

27th October 2017

Will the emerging technology of real time translation devices make language learning a thing of the past?

The quality of translation software programs has greatly improved in recent years, thanks to new, fast-developing technologies. With the recent release of Google Pixel buds and advances on other real time translation devices, verbal and written communications are starting to get easier but will it be easy enough to completely stop language learning?

Imagine a meeting with colleagues who speak a variety of languages being able to communicate naturally in their own tongue and not having to worry about getting the nuances of a foreign language correct. Sounds great, doesn’t it. Machine translation tools can achieve that to an extent but without accuracy of meaning or emotions.

Two years ago, Skype’s product page had the following description:

‘Skype Translator gives you the ability to speak another language without learning one. Simply set up a Skype video or voice call with someone who speaks another language and start talking.’

Impressive, isn’t it? For those of you who used Skype Translator, you know that this is far from the truth. We weren’t the only ones thinking that. The product page was recently updated to:

‘Break down language barriers with your friends, family and colleagues. Our online translator can help you communicate more clearly. Our voice translator currently works in 8 languages, and our text translator is available in more than 50 languages for instant messaging. Skype Translator uses machine learning. So the more you use it, the better it gets.’

Google Translate can translate websites, text messages and programs on smartphones, instantly. It also can translate speech spoken into a device. However, it works the same way as Skype – it uses machine learning to translate content.

Issues with machine learning translation devices

The main issue with machine learning translation devices is that you must use them frequently, so they can learn to translate content accurately.

Google says that with their new Pixel Buds ‘big sound meets real-time translation’. How about emotions and expressions?

Philipp Koehn, a teacher from Johns Hopkins University in the American state of Maryland, has studied machine translation for many years. He says that over time, the software program learns to translate from billions of language examples. He explains that:

“I would be very cautious about any claims about near human-level quality. There are just too many problems. Ultimately, to solve the machine translation problem, you have to solve all the problems in AI and understanding, and we are not close to that by any means.”

“Things like automated translation – which makes it possible that everything gets translated into your native language – actually helps in preserving the diversity of languages.”

These tools are useful, but will they replace the need for language learning? No, at least not yet.

They can be used for a basic meeting, but what about socialising, travelling, formulating trust, showing emotions and understanding?

Relying on a transitional technology will never be as good as being able to converse in that language. If you’ve travelled around, you will hopefully agree that best way to learn the culture and see the most beautiful places, often hidden from the public, is by integrating with the locals; and to get to know the local community you need to speak their language. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s better than using a tool that requires no effort and doesn’t show your character, mannerisms and the person you really are!

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