The notion of 'foreign' languages is beginning to disappear, thanks to ongoing developments by the likes of Google and Facebook that help the thousands of languages across the world be less foreign and more accessible. How? By making language translation easier than ever. In light of the technological progress in translation software made over the last decade, we may very well be on the cusp of witnessing the majority of language barriers between people groups disappear.
Not only does that mean everyone will be able to speak their natural tongue, learning another language will be purely out of interest or linguistic study, not a degree requirement for students or mandatory continuing education for international business people.
Leading the way in these innovations is Google, and as the search engine has become popular so has its translation service. Google Translate now has 200 million monthly users accessing the service through web pages, YouTube, and mobile apps. According to Google's CEO Larry Page, Google Translate now works with 64 languages instantly and for free.
Not content with software that's good but not perfect, the company has recently made a slew of improvements to Translate. Google uses a statistical approach in its translation service, which means it pulls translations from web pages it has indexed to find the best translation. But since last May, the company has allowed users to help improve results by editing translations. On its blog, Google also announced that Gmail now allows automatic translation of incoming emails, something that will certainly make both its personal and business customers happy. Finally, Google Translate was beefed up even more by incorporating example sentences from web sites that use the translated word or phrases, thereby providing greater context, just like some dictionaries include.
All of these developments are helpful for the printed word, but what about speech? Fortunately, you can get translations with Google Voice Search in Chrome simply by saying "Translate to", naming the language, and then saying the phrase. The translation is in written form, but surely it won't be long before Search will speak back to you. That's because the Google Translate app does just that in Conversation Mode, allowing users to type or speak in their native tongue and then see or hear the translation in seconds.
Here's a 2010 video explaining the backend of Google Translate:
Google is not the only one employing translation software. Last October, Facebook introduced a translation tool allowing users to instantly translate posts in foreign languages. Because the social network has such an intersection of people from around the world (900 million as of March 2012), translation is a high priority, which is likely why the company turned to Microsoft Bing rather than develop its own translator. Bing Translator recently replaced the once popular Babel Fish translator from Yahoo!. The Microsoft service currently translates 38 languages in Office, Windows Phone, and Kindle as well as Facebook.
But do people really want technology to do all the work for them? Perhaps a strong interest in learning a new language persists even in the age of the web?
To address that question, there's no better place to look than Rosetta Stone. Founded in 1992 as Fairfield Language Technologies to develop translation software, the company grew to provide language learning packages in 30 languages. In 2009, Rosetta Stone became publicly traded alongside a marketing blitzkrieg that was quite successful...from an advertising point of view. A survey showed that nearly 80 percent of Americans are familiar with the brand, yet the company reported a 73 percent drop in annual sales by 2011 likely due to a handful of reasons, such as the general decline of software sales and competition, but it appears that that biggest reason is lack of interest in average consumers.
Even as the company wrestles with declining interest, Rosetta Stone continues to market its software as a convenient way to simulate immersion through video in order to learn a language. Now, most of us don't think about language before we speak -- we just talk. Yet, one of the biggest struggles with learning a second language is training your brain to think in that language. Achieving this takes years of practice and to be truly bilingual almost always involves immersion, usually in a foreign country. Otherwise, you are forced to continually perform the mental task of translating from your native tongue.
And that's the point. As with many other cases, these kinds of mental processes will be faster and more accurate when it is done by computers.
Think of it this way: mathematics itself is a language and many a math student has struggled with its translation. But calculators have changed the way that people do math, and the number of functions that the average calculator can perform has grown immensely. Sure, it would be great if people had a better appreciation for the beauty of mathematics, it's history, development, and all the little nuances and tricks that make it so fascinating (just as with foreign languages). But the majority of people need to use mathematics for very practical purposes, like balancing their checkbooks, so learning about Fibonacci sequences in school tends to muddle all the pragmatic math that they will actually need. In most cases, students benefit from learning all the details of math, but what they must absolutely know is how to use a calculator.
So where is translation headed? Technology is clearly pushing toward a universal translator -- in other words, a language calculator. A universal translator will take all the mental calculations out of translation so you can focus on what you want to say, not how to say it. After all, you don't need to recall from language class the history of the Spanish Empire, what the components of paella are, or the popularity of Flamenco dancing when you are in Tijuana and just need to find a restroom among the seedy night clubs (yes, I am speaking from personal experience).
And technological progress won't stop there. At some point, we'll want other translators and the possibility of interspecies communication will likely become of great interest. In fact, it's already begun with groups like the Wild Dolphin Project and the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program aiming to do this by learning to decode dolphin communication. It may seem that speaking with animals is just a child's wish, but we're in an era when technology is making childhood dreams come true.
This year's April Fool's Day video from Google pokes fun at the idea, but you can bet someone at Google Labs has seriously considered whether it could work:
But in the here and now, what does all of this mean? Your best bet is to focus on one language, your native tongue, and master it in all forms. In the age of the Internet, communication is more important than ever, because more people are communicating and they are using a variety of means to do it (blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos). On top of that, the web is persistent, so what you say can linger for a long time.
So when it comes to foreign languages, let technology take care of bridging the gaps between different tongues, dialects, accents, and slang. There's nothing wrong with learning a language for fun, but the days of believing that you have to know a second language are over.