Why you already speak 58 languages without trying

In December last year, the future arrived. Its name was Word Lens and its simplicity was as spectacular as what it did.

The £6.99 app invited iPhone users to hold their phone’s camera in front of Spanish text and, after an impressively short delay, replaced the original text – down to the font size and colour – with a translation.

The universal translator’s days as a staple of science fiction are now numbered, as the idea of instant, computerised translation becomes less and less fanciful.

Arrive at a foreign-language web page in Google Chrome, and a toolbar at the top offers to translate the text for you. Set the appropriate option and translation is performed automatically. It allows users to read foreign news, shop internationally and contact correspondents worldwide irrespective of language.

You mustn’t be Luddite about it; it will continue to get better and better

Install Google’s search app on your iPhone or Android handset and it will recognise voices and offer text translation: handy for anyone who’s ever struggled to deliver coherent instructions to Parisian taxi drivers, or wrong-footed a Spanish waiter with an off-piste pronunciation of “cerveza”.

Language school’s out?

The Ashcombe School in Surrey is a leader in language education. Granted specialist status in 1998, it was marked out by its then-revolutionary use of IT in language education.

Today, it teaches German, French and Spanish, and offers less formal courses in Chinese. One student studies Russian in his spare time “just for his own pleasure,” notes head of languages and deputy head Helen Myers, with a discernible touch of pride.

With automated translation improving rapidly, and traditional language learning a lynchpin for the school, you’d expect to find worried faces in the headmaster’s office. Headteacher David Blow admits that machine translation software is improving rapidly.

“You mustn’t be Luddite about it,” he says. “It will continue to get better and better.” Myers agrees. “The quality used to be very, very poor,” she says. “I now know that it’s really very good.”

Whatever drawbacks machine translation might have for professional language instructors, it’s hard to see invisible, real-time translation software as a negative.

Mike Fulkerson, vice president of technology and labs at language education company Rosetta Stone, says machine translation is getting faster and more efficient.

“Tools such as online translation are going to help open up the internet,” he says.

Top translation tools

Find out which tools can help translate the world for you

There’s no doubt the internet needs opening up. With around a third as many speakers as English, Spanish is the third most popular language on Earth (the second is Mandarin); but a glance at Wikipedia’s front page reveals that the online encyclopedia has nearly five times as many articles in English as in Spanish.

Non-English speakers online are placed at an undeniable disadvantage – one which could be reduced or eliminated entirely with further advances in machine translation.

Headmaster David Blow agrees that in the future people could use the internet exclusively in their own language.

“There will be a technology that will, in a sense, translate for you. I can see within ten years that’s a reasonable possibility. You can see the strides that have been made, and in a sense the miniaturisation, the portability that’s coming through smartphones.”

International news

An example of the potential of instant translation was provided by Norwegian newspapers in the wake of July’s terrorist attacks, says Fulkerson.

“I’m not going to learn Norwegian,” he says; but coverage of breaking news stories gives people a reason to read international newspapers.

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