AI-powered chatbots and the future of language learning

Chatbots are one of the next big things. Facebook’s experimental feature M, Slack’s Slackbot or bot-add ons for existing messengers like Whatsapp and Telegram such as Murdoch or WhatsBot show where we are heading: Into a world of conversational interfaces based on texting. Despite all fancy interaction tech available, texting has evolved as the world population’s most favourite way of interaction. Over the next years, more people will start to have text conversations with machines, so called bots. Conversations that thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning could feel pretty much like those with people from our “human” contact list. Even though sometimes still, what is presented to be a bot actually could be a human.

One area in which I hope that text-based conversational interfaces will flourish is language learning. The other day, I myself acted as a language learning bot, and the results were promising. Continue Reading

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

Sprache

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)

Fighting the language fragmentation

Throughout the years while being the editor of netzwertig.com, one reader question arose frequently: Why would we not publish in English in addition to German? Personally I did not feel this would have made sense, but for a very long time I was playing with the thought of launching a dedicated tech blog in English. A site where I could publish analysis of and comments on events taking place in the global and European technology and Internet industry. Now, finally, I am doing it!

The main problem with writing about the events, trends and companies that shape our digital present and future in a language other than English is that your reach is pretty limited. That does not matter if a text concerns a local or national issue, which we have enough of in Germany when it comes to the (comparatively neglected) digital society. But as soon as one covers a major news or service from the U.S. – where most of the latest tech still comes from – the possible impact one might have is radically diminished by sticking to German or any other tiny language present in Europe. It feels a bit like looking through a one-way mirror from the operator side: You see what goes on and you can comment on it, but the crowd on the other side does not notice it: They do not see nor hear you.

I would put it like this: Everything that is not being expressed in English does not matter on a global scale, is not being seen by others, is not being shared, questioned and re-thought by enough people with different views and experiences. Or, if it matters, it happens with a delay (until the translation and distribution in foreign circles).

When you look at the major sites and blogs covering the latest news from the San Francisco Bay Area (which includes the Silicon Valley), from New York (an increasingly important tech hub) or elsewhere, most of the voices are American, or at least from the English-speaking countries. There is certainly no lack of European journalists and bloggers who follow and write about the evolution and revolution of the technology world. But most do it in the many different languages of Europe. I find that to be an unfortunate situation, and it means that voices from the “old continent” are hardly being heard on the other side of the pond. Except those from questionable politicians and media tycoons that, out of desperation about Europe’s failure to create its own giants, are on a crusade against Google.

Obviously I will not be able to change the fragmentation with this modest little site. But my hope is that other fellow European writers who are passionate and opinionated about tech will eventually make the switch as well, or at least try to publish in English occasionally. Europe notoriously has failed to produce the kind of far-reaching Internet giants that the U.S. west coast has given birth to. One of the many reasons for this is the massive language fragmentation and micro-competition between dozens of small ecosystems, which kills a lot of potential strength and network effects.

That is nothing that can be changed within a day. In many countries of Europe the majority of people still lack a common language to communicate with across borders. On the other hand, especially within the Internet industry, it is happening, and language barriers as well as cultural barriers are being dismantled. It takes a while, and it won’t lead to big results immediately. But if everybody contributes, over time improvements will be seen. I simply want to contribute with what I can do.

My plan is not to position meshedsociety.com as a site focusing on Europe though. The only reason why I keep mentioning that word is because this is where I grew up, where I live when I am not traveling somewhere else, and where most likely major parts of my values and view of life were initially shaped. As everybody who has spent enough time in the Bay Area knows: Mentality and culture there can be quite different.

I see this site as an experiment. My goal is to write stuff that people who are interested in the digitization of our lives enjoy reading. If it works out and if I at one point in the future can find an exclusive sponsor or another type of readership-respecting business model to finance my work, great. If not, I will run the site as a side-project or stop eventually, knowing that I never need to regret not having tried it.

If you like to join in on this journey, here (and in the right sidebar) are some easy ways to subscribe or follow. Thanks for reading and good to have you here!

Illustration by jakubmarian.com