Speech to Speech Translator

Isn’t one of the biggest problems in the world today that we just can’t seem to be on the same page, or that through miscommunication, we constantly mistake the others’ intent or meaning?  That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud to be in a field that helps people bridge the gap between what they say and how it is understood by others. As an ESL teacher, I wonder how Google’s attempts at a speech to speech translator will improve upon that?

Google plans to make its Babel Fish a lot like a human translator; the software would analyze chunks of speech, and translate them in their entirety rather than translating word for word. Franz Och, Google’s head of translation services, claims the technology could go live in a couple of years. “Clearly, for it to work smoothly, you need a combination of high-accuracy machine translation and high-accuracy voice recognition, and that’s what we’re working on. If you look at the progress in machine translation and corresponding advances in voice recognition, there has been huge progress recently,” he says.

Anyone who’s used Google Translate knows that translations aren’t (and probably never will be) perfect, but they’re very helpful when you can’t understand a word of some foreign language. However, Google’s voice recognition also has issues of its own, and I fear that these two combined would produce a very high amount of errors. The Times also mentions the issue of different accents, a problem that Google plans to solve by making the software gradually learn the speaking habits of the phone’s owner.

Whether for business, career, or friendship, are there any benefits to NOT learning the basics of the language of your communication partners?  Any ESL teacher can tell you that it’s not necessary to learn other languages to teach English, but the advantages of doing it anyway are indisputable.  You can reach more people, teach more diversified groups, understand their languages’ syntactic patterns to better assist them with those in English, and have better interpersonal relationships.

I’m not afraid of the obsolescence of the field of TESOL;  any translation tool will be additive…like calculators in math or spell check in Word.  But just as I tell students who rely on spell check yet continue to turn in papers with “to” instead of “too”, I will also advise that using technology is grand, but it can’t (and shouldn’t) replace the good old fashioned noodle to solve the world’s problems.

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