“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” — Nelson Mandela

Every once in a while, some particular type of technology will catch my eye, and I will start to investigate it, probably much more than I should. I will obsess over it, trying to squeeze more out of it than it may deserve.

This started when I was in 6th grade and Mr. Whatley, the assistant principal, asked me to be the school projectionist, running the 16mm projectors for all of the teachers who had difficulty threading the films from the reel in the front of the projector to the reel in the back of the projector. My role as helper continued (it’s still what I do today, in a way). And my compulsion to probe the limits of various technologies continued as well — calculators with ridiculous numbers of buttons, Apple IIc clones, my Atari 1040ST, my Macs, my iPads, phones and pods.

My latest obsession is language translation software for my various i-devices. It started off innocently enough, with an iPhone program by Quest Visual called “Word Lens.” (http://questvisual.com/). To me it sounded like magic when it came out. With Word Lens, they claimed, you could point your iPhone at a sign in Spanish, and in real time, you would get back a translation into English.

You point your phone camera at the sign that might say, oh, “ALTO” in Spanish and the program translates it for you. Sounds kind of boring, but here is the kicker: it keeps the sign that you are pointing at in place and just replaces the word. So the sign that said ALTO now says “STOP.” The sign background stays the same. It was amazing!

I thought it was a joke when I first saw the video that demonstrated it, but then I downloaded the app, and it does what it claims! At a local Walgreens, I was standing in line and I saw this sign:

I turned on my Word Lens app, and this was the translation:

Pretty awesome. Word Lens got me going into the world of translation apps — but it just the beginning. I was soon answering the siren call of Google Translate.

La tarea de matematicas

The Google Translate App for iPhone can do three things:

– It can understand your spoken voice.

– It can translate your voice into 15 languages.

– It can them speak the translated phrase back to you.


Suppose you need to tell a parent in Spanish that they need to help their child with their math homework. Simply speak into the onscreen microphone prompt:

“Please make sure that your son does his math homework every night.”

In about 2 seconds, it gives you a confirmation of what you said in English, written on the screen. The program then gives you a Spanish translation. (Or one of the 14 other languages you might choose.) In this case the translation was:

“Por favor, asegûrese de que su hijo hace la tarea de matematicas cada noche.”

But that is not all, it will also speak the translation: Google Translate audio file

The Google Translate app won’t translate large amounts of text or spoken language, but it handles phrases and short sentences that are clearly spoken in a quiet room very well. And if you need to communicate with a parent who’s not quite sure what you are saying, this could be helpful for school folks and for families.

Boldly going where no app has gone before

With the Word Lens and Google Translate apps, we are on our way to actually having conversations with each other, no matter what corner of the galaxy we might inhabit.

Remember the Universal Translator that Gene Roddenberry envisioned in Star Trek back in the 1960’s? It helped explain why all of the aliens on each planet were fluent in English. Another new app is getting us closer to Roddenberry’s imaginative solution. It’s called VOCRE, from My Language (http://www.vocre.com/). It promises that you can carry on a near real-time conversation with someone in another language using an i-Device.

It’s pretty simple:

Choose the language you wish to translate to and from. Say, English to Spanish. You speak English into the iPhone and VOCRE almost immediately translates and speaks what you said. Then the other person speaks into your phone and what they say is translated back to you. Here’s a video with the founder of My Language talking about how the program works:

It is technology, not magic. Almost instantaneous universal translation.

True global collaboration

It’s apparent that this technology is in its nascent stage and will only get better. Right now it’s limited to short phrases but it’s sure to get faster and faster and manage longer and longer pieces of conversation.

Imagine this:

Mix these evolving translation technologies, both visual and audio, and then combine them into a program like Facetime or Skype. Suddenly, you have people from anywhere in the world being able to carry on conversations with anyone else in the world. Language will no longer be a limiting factor when people in different cultures and language communities want to share information or go deeper into true collaboration.

So, if technology will be able to do this, where does that leave the future of foreign language classes? Are they doomed to fall away because technology will be able to replace them? If the purpose of a foreign language class is to teach people to communicate in another language, and the technology will be able to do that for us, what will become their purpose?

Perhaps the language teachers who survive this technology shift will be those who are experts on the cultural nuances of the languages they specialize in. You’ve probably heard the expression, “It loses something in the translation.”

Say, wasn’t there a Star Trek/Next Generation episode about that little problem?

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