Technology destroying the language barrier is real, not just a theoretical idea

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How would a world look like in which the majority of people, or even every single individual, would be able to seamlessly communicate with each other?

The truth is that nobody knows. Those with an utopian ideology might suspect that many of the intercultural issues that define today’s conflicts disappear if humans would better understand each other across borders, cultures and ethnical as well as religious groups. Skeptics on the other hand could point out that thanks to English, people already have the means to make each other understood and heard around the world. Still, global peace seems to be as far away as ever.

Whatever the outcome might be: New technology is rapidly getting us closer to a point at which humans are able to interact and communicate with each other, no matter where they grew up and what their native language is. Some events of the recent weeks have made this pretty clear.

First, Skype released its experimental real time translation feature for English and Spanish. In a lengthy blogpost the VoIP service explained the challenges of allowing people to talk to each other in different languages with a tool that translates “live”, and how these challenges were overcome.

A couple of weeks later Google showed that it has made advancements in the language-translation department as well. It released a new version of Google Translate for iOS and Android that apart from the capability of reading and translation signs offers a fast real-time conversation mode. I tried it for a conversation English-Turkish and despite lots of shortcomings (that pretty much had to be expected), the feature definitely delivered on its overall promise to enable conversations in different languages.

Just some days ago, it was Twitter’s turn to present its contribution to improved cross-language communication between humans: With the help of Bing technology, tweets can now be translated automatically into the user’s prefered language. While nobody should expect to receive perfect translations that can deal with Twitter slang, abbreviations and the usual sarcastic comments made in tweets, the translate feature certainly helps to get the gist of a tweet in a foreign language. Ideally, this makes it more manageable to follow users that alternative between different languages when tweeting (yours truly belongs to that group, too).

Simultaneously to the advancements in automated translation technology for the mass market, language learners receive increasingly better, easier accessible tools to practice foreign languages and to become polyglots. Duolingo, the mobile-first language learning app by Captcha inventor Luis von Ahn, has reached impressive 60 million registered users. The language learning community busuu just passed the mark of 50 million users. Unlike traditional online language learning tools, theses contenders have found ways to offer language learning for free, destroying one of the main barriers of language learning: costs.

As in some many other parts of the digital life, the rise of smartphones and tablets is what accelerates the impact and effects of the translation and language sector. From a user point of view, it is a huge difference whether you sit at a computer translating, or whether you are “out in the wild”, being in need of quick translations or language help.

Mr Reader
Also the usability improvements that come with touch screens must not be underestimated. One of my personal language hacks is using my iPad RSS reader of choice, Mr Reader, for automated word-by-word translation of news articles in a language in which I managed to acquire basic theoretical knowledge but in which I want to improve (which currently is Spanish). In my personal experience, being able to read a text in a partly unfamiliar language where I can instantly translate specific words with no effort, using nothing but a tap of my finger, is a big deal.

Slowly but steadily, language learning and translating loses a lot of its previous annoyances and inconveniences. That itself is the key to introducing more people to these possibilities and tools . At the same time, the quality and speed of translations is improving.

It still might take decades in order to reach a state in which ubiquitous near-perfect real time language translation compatible with all of the major languages is the reality. But if one only looks at the progress that has been made over the past 1 to 2 years, and acknowledging that the smartphone is the first suitable personal translation device ever, one must expect rapid progress over the course of the next years.

While we today only can make assumptions about what reduced obstacles for global conversations and an improved understanding between humans with different native languages mean, we might get the actual answer sooner than we think.

(Photo: Flickr/Alfonso, CC BY-NC 2.0)

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