Skype Translator to break language barriers

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The universal translator from “Star Trek,” the babelfish from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and a real human interpreter are a few of the things to which the Skype Translator has been compared. Released to a limited amount of users in December as a prototype, it provides instant audio translation between English and Spanish and text translation between over 40 other languages, according to Skype’s Big Blog. Microsoft’s newly released technology could become an invaluable tool for eliminating language loss, recording the world’s languages and bringing them to a more equal sociopolitical level.

Out of the 6,000 languages currently spoken around the globe, one dies every other week. Languages spoken by only a few dozen or a few hundred people are quickly losing their relevance in the globalized world. Linguists cannot record languages fast enough, nor realistically protect them, but a computer learning a language using input from the speakers could keep that language alive.

The wonder of the Skype Translator is that the computer program learns.

“Say you teach [Skype Translator] English,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at the inaugural Code Conference last May. “It learns English. Then you teach it Mandarin. It learns Mandarin, but it becomes better at English. And then you teach it Spanish. It gets good at Spanish, but it gets great at both Mandarin and English—and, quite frankly, none of us know exactly why.”

This ability is called “deep learning,” one of two processes the Skype Translator uses to distinguish itself from other technologies like Google Translate, which is generally recognized to be inadequate.

It is more sophisticated than previous technologies in that the user can correct the computer by rewriting any mistakes in the text feature of the translator. This means that if the computer hears “a fake ton” instead of “affection,” for example, the speaker can type in what she actually said, allowing the computer to expand its repertoire of phonetic nuances. As a result of both of these features, the program should become smarter the more it is used, potentially becoming fluent in human speech.

Following Nadella’s statement, the technology that runs the translator could become advanced enough to record any language. Minority languages, like Native American Nahuatl, would then have a database to keep them from becoming lost, even in the absence of human speakers.

Moreover, instant translation could eliminate the prejudice that certain languages, like English, Spanish or Chinese, are more useful than others. The universality of English forces business people around the world to learn it. Similarly, people in India learn Hindi in order to move to major cities. Instant translation offers the possibility for people to become engaged in the globalized world while still using their native language. If governing bodies or businesses could conduct meetings in a myriad of languages, international cooperation would be infinitely more simple and efficient.

Language domination forces students learning English as a second language in U.S. classrooms to fend for themselves in English-only classrooms. Instant translation could break the communication barrier between students and teachers who do not share a language.

“It doesn’t eliminate the need to learn new languages,” Professor of education Suzie Abajian said. “It could be used to highlight key words and get general concepts.”

Occidental students travel the world to conduct research and learn about international cooperation. Technology like the Skype Translator, in its future incarnations, would allow them to visit more places and dive even deeper into the cultures they encounter.