Foreign Language Decline: Translation Tools

Given all the tools and tricks of translation that are available to us on our phones, tablets and browsers currently, it makes you wonder why would anyone go to the trouble of putting the effort in to learning a language for themselves? Yes, we know language learning is important, but when predictive text types your next words before you even think them and then can translate them almost simultaneously, is there really anything left for us to learn? In continuing with our foreign language decline series, let’s see what translation tools are available and decide if they help make up our minds on this.

What is translation?


Photo via Wikimedia

Simply put, translation is the act of reading a source text in one language and understanding it enough to be able to recode it in the target language. Translation experts are not just people who recognise a few words and have transient ideas about what the grammar structure might be. No, these people know these languages with such fluency that they can probably translate a bad joke without losing its cadence – in other words, they will still elicit an eye roll and groan from you whatever language they are speaking.

We can’t all keep a real life translator in our back pocket, however, and this is where technology comes into effect. Machine translation has been an idea in progress since at least the seventeenth century, although its exponential transition from pipe dream to useful tool has obviously been enhanced with the birth of the internet. Machine translation means having a device (or software) that does this difficult deed for you with little input from real humans. Sure, some early machine translation relied on humans identifying things like proper nouns so they weren’t accidentally translated, but with a clever twist of algorithms and statistics could work out complexities like sentence structure, word order, and pluralisation.

Word roulette

Now. If you’re after a single word translation and it’s too much effort to pick up a dictionary, chances are you’re thumbing open the Google Translate app. It’s quick, simple, and has come a long way from the painful mistakes it made with translations in its infancy. The great thing about this tool is that it is constantly evolving and improving, and it will even say the words for you if what you’re trying to pronounce is a bit of a tongue twister.

Google Translate is very, very clever. It uses a neural network to translate between language pairs of its popular languages, and even those it hasn’t been explicitly trained in doing. Instead of breaking down sentences into component parts of individual words and identifiable phrases, whole sentences are translated in one go. It’s fast, dynamic, and is considered a truly huge advance in machine translation. What it appears to be doing to perform this task is creating its own AI language as some kind of interlingua that only it can understand. Say it with us, people: Skynet.

Babel fish and T.A.R.D.I.S.(es)


GIF via Giphy

For those of you learning a language, one of the things often recommended to nudge you on your way is to access your favourite social media in the language you are trying to learn. But even that is now a little outdated an idea, because anything that appears on your dash that isn’t in your language when you’re on things like Facebook and Twitter will be translated for you. Without you even thinking about going to the effort.


But beyond this apparently instant translation there is one more tool that makes manual translation feel an obsolete, archaic practice. Skype, using machine translation that improves the more that you use it, can now simultaneously translate for you while you are speaking in eight languages. And help you with more than fifty on instant messaging when you aren’t. Incredible, when you think about it, or possibly even quite frightening.

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And we haven’t even scratched the surface. There are a plethora of Google Translate-type services out there ranging in quality and number of supported languages. And from December this year, Panasonic will be offering a megaphone that translates automatically into English, Chinese and Korean to assist with its increasing influx of foreign visitors.

So, is translation still necessary? Is this a career that is best avoiding, or is there still need for real, actual human assistance with this task? Yes is the honest answer, and that’s not just because this is our profession. Because machines are not quite yet at the standard where they can understand every human nuance and tongue in cheek comment that really needs translating by a person who gets our oddness and quirks.

Next time in our exploration of foreign language decline, we are going to try to figure out why language learning is declining. Think on that, and we’ll see you then!