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Bring on the Babel fish

This post was written by Imogen Casebourne and first appeared on the Epic blog on 13th November 2012.

babel fish: soon to be a language break through?The Babel Fish was a figment of Douglas Adams’ imagination in his popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of books. It was a creature that characters would put into their ear that allows them to hear every other language as if it were their own. If our technology keeps evolving, we might find ourselves really taking advantage of something very similar in the future.

I could have used one of these when I recently went on holiday in Tunisia where the most widely spoken languages are Arabic and French. To arrange my holiday, I needed to communicate with hotel owners who didn’t speak English. I learned French at school and spent a semester abroad studying in Aix en Provence. So I must have been able to speak it once. But sadly, languages are one of those things that you lose if you don’t use them. So my French is now very, very rusty and that presented a problem. Luckily, Google Translate came riding to the rescue, letting me type my emails in English and then output them in French.

I also studied Artificial Intelligence a long time ago, when getting machines to understand natural languages was a very hard task. This is because of semantics, that is, getting computers to recognise context and understand the appropriate meanings of words and phrases. So having just enough French to know if the translation had gone very badly wrong, I was impressed by how well Google Translate worked. In fact, I had quite a long email exchange with a French hotel owner, and when I arrived he assumed I spoke fluent French (luckily my husband is much better at speaking French than I am!).

So advances in technology have let me communicate in writing even though I don’t speak the language. But these same advances leave me rather exposed when I actually got there and needed to communicate verbally! The same type of advances in technology (getting computers to identify speech from sounds using context) have brought us Siri, Eva, Dragon and other vastly improved speech recognition systems.

This leads me to think that we now have two pieces of a puzzle: the machine’s ability to recognise what I am saying and its ability to translate what I want to say into another language. If computers could output human sounding speech, then they could act as personal translators for our holiday and business needs. Advances are being made in this area to support individuals with paralysis, but there is still some way to go.

Thinking of the Babel Fish gets me to wondering about language learning. If everyone had their own personal translator, would language learning become obsolete? I think probably not, as many people would still want to speak directly in another language, especially as some research suggests that learning another language can help us think in different ways. So, if people are still going to learn languages, how can technology help them learn?

Well, mobile technologies can obviously be of huge benefit to language learners. Because they are always with us, they enable us to practice at any time or place for as long or short a time as is appropriate. Features like GPS can allow mobile devices to know where we are, and to give us appropriate vocabulary lists. For example, having lunch in the park is the perfect time to recap vocabulary relating to trees, flowers, paths and benches. Augmented reality could in future enable us to point our mobile device at an object and see or hear the word for it, allowing us to learn as we go. And mobile games could give us the opportunity for repeating vocabulary and practicing conversations. Lastly, speech recognition would be able to tell us if we are pronouncing things correctly, which almost brings us full circle!

So it seems the future for languages is looking bright indeed.