Can automatic translation really help people learn languages?

Published on August 25th, 2017

automatic translation

Despite steady improvement, automatic translation is nowhere near the point where it can replace native speakers. The truth is it may never be, but this doesn’t mean the technology can’t help us in our quest to break down language barriers.

Instead of replacing the need to learn new languages, we’re starting to see translation technology help us learn them in a more engaging way. Could it be that automatic translation is the language learning tool we’ve all been waiting for?


Automatic translation hits the wall

While translation technology is making progress with the rise of machine learning and other technologies, it’s a slow game. Essentially, automatic translation has hit a bit of a wall in terms of the quality it can provide.

Something that’s changing much faster is how we use that technology.

In 2015, Microsoft caught the world’s attention with its Skype Translator update. Video chats between English and Spanish-speaking school children – supposedly translated in real-time – looked like something of a breakthrough for translation technology.

automatic translation

However, there was nothing particularly new about the translation tech itself. It was the integration with video and voice recognition that made it special. Not to mention the fact its demo highlighted the potential use in classrooms around the world.

Just two years later and Skype Translator doesn’t seem so pioneering. Yet translation technology is still being implemented in new ways that create a more intuitive language learning process.


Social language learning

One of the most exciting online communities right now is the language exchange environment. People from different countries team up to learn and practise each others’ languages, meaning access is one language barrier that no longer exists.

HelloTalk is a relatively new player on the language exchange scene, but it’s doing great things with automatic translation technology implementation. Essentially, HelloTalk is a messaging app like WhatsApp, except it helps you find language partners.

automatic translation

That’s not all, though. HelloTalk implements automatic translation into the conversation, which makes it easier for people of all languages levels to communicate. If someone writes something you can’t understand, you simply translate their message and carry on.

automatic translation

With the safety net of instant translation behind them, there’s nothing getting in the way of language learners talking to native speakers. What could otherwise be an intimidating experience becomes a faster learning curve and the conversion keeps flowing.


Filling the gaps with automatic translation

When it comes to professional translation, we use automatic translation tech to cover the repetitive or basic tasks that don’t require human translation. However, in the language learning process, it can fill a slightly different role.

As always, the problem with translation technology is accuracy, so you can never rely on it too much. Promotional videos like this one for the “ili” automatic translation device don’t highlight the English-Japanese translation problems we so often see:

However, you don’t necessarily need to use devices like this to completely replace your own language learning efforts. Every language learner knows the frustration of stopping mid sentence because they don’t know one word they need or keeping quiet because they can’t remember a verb ending. Automatic translation can remove this frustration for language learners and let them focus on communicating with people freely – which is the whole point of learning new languages to begin with.

Posted on: August 25th, 2017