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Why your smartphone will NEVER be a universal translator

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Anyone who follows sci-fi will have come across the “universal translator“. To get around use of other languages on the shows that aliens would undoubtedly speak, (other than when part of a plot device, like Klingon or Na'vi), a computer does all the work of understanding other languages so the human explorers don't have to.

Occasionally it's something else, like the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy's babelfish, which relies on telepathy.

Either that or everyone in the galaxy speaks English, which is just a higher level version of the delusion that English is all you need on earth.

Translator apps; created by lazy monolinguals for gullible monolinguals

The thing is, we are at the stage when our technology is sophisticated enough that there are actually apps you can install on your smartphones that almost seem to act like a universal translator!

Every day I get sent interesting links by email, or they are shared on the Fi3M forum resources page, and inevitably I see links to a couple of iPhones apps that make it seem like you don't even need to learn the language any more – just hold your phone up and all problems will be solved.

If you have no idea how languages work, or if you are gullible enough to believe the ideal conditions of the advertisement, then you will be absolutely convinced when you see the two videos below that learning a language is now a waste of time; soon enough you will be able to stroll around in any country shoving your iPhone in people's faces and at signs and communicate without any issues(!)

But the thing is, these videos are only impressive if you don't understand what is actually required for communication and how restrictive they are and how far away we are from something useful. They are actually terribly inefficient and way off anything practical.

And those who designed the apps? They seem to have no understanding or appreciation of how languages work. They are programmers, who didn't even consult natives to check if their examples were accurate, and who are blissfully unaware or unwilling to admit the many faults their app has in their commercials.

Let's have a look at the two most famous ones I've seen:

Word Lens: Get your signs translated… into gibberish

This first one is something I've seen for a long time online. If you don't read any Spanish it looks amazing! But the thing is, the whole ad is designed specifically to mislead you in how the app works.

The most impressive lie I see in the video is the fake sign they designed which says “Lo traduce el texto instantáneamente”, which isn't Spanish at all! This is gibberish that you will never see in the real world; this non-Spanish was created specifically to misrepresent how good the app is.

The app works by translating word for word what it sees. Some people may feel that it's “good enough” when they are monolingual and don't get how languages work. I was a professional translator for several years and I can tell you that even for very basic sentences, translating word for word produces nothing but gibberish in far too many cases – even more so for languages further away from English than Spanish would be.

There are too many situations where a word has several translations. Did you know that “set” in English has 464 meanings in the Oxford English dictionary, depending on the context? And “run” has 396? You can't just pick one, even if it comes up as a likely translation a third of the time.

“Lo” in Spanish, so overused in the video, technically can mean “it”, but it actually is way more likely going to mean “that which is”, “what”, “him”, “you”, and actually in the vast majority of cases it isn't translated or requires serious rephrasing in the English equivalent sentence. No dictionary can portray this efficiently; only by real use do you finally understand what “lo” can mean.

There are some cases where you can indeed “get the gist”, but it requires one hell of a good imagination, especially when the word order is totally off and basic words with many translations are misused.

The app author admits to not consulting any Spanish speakers in designing the app or creating the video. This is nothing but sloppiness.

As well as these issues, it doesn't work with other fonts, it wouldn't handle damages to particular letters or a non-plain background around the letters, and it relies on an offline limited dictionary that is clearly really poor. The only thing I can praise in this app is the clever programming for replacing the letters in a moving image. That's pretty impressive coding, but don't let that fool you as to how useful it can be.

It could do OK with some signs, especially if the dictionary database is designed specifically for signs (which it isn't, as it focuses on one word at a time rather than the phrase). I would not recommend you use it for anything but road signs, and have a real dictionary or phrasebook handy for the majority of cases when you don't have a clue what it's trying to tell you. Steer clear of menus, newspaper articles and the like.

In summary: don't download it!

Vocre – the very expensive “future” of misleading instant voice translation

Here's the latest one – an app that instantly translates spoken conversations! Once again a video portrays it as being as good as magic. On their site, they say:

Vocre [voh-krey] is a new translation app from myLanguage that allows anyone to communicate instantly with anybody from anywhere – without language being a barrier… Our world is full of people worth talking to. Now, with Vocre, nothing’s holding you back.

Burn your language learning books – the future is here and learning other languages is a waste of time it seems!

Perhaps not. Here are a few things the advertisement fails to tell you:

  • The app is free with some test translations, and then it costs a dollar per ten uses. So forget about that girl continuing an entire date using the app!
  • The interface is cumbersome according to many of the reviews – you waste your paid credits if you hesitate while rotating
  • The Google Translate app does the exact same thing for free if you don't mind clicking some buttons.
  • That guy in the video ISN'T A NATIVE FRENCH SPEAKER! It's pretty obvious he's just an English speaker with good (not excellent) French. “Acheter un café” (or as he says it “ach…et…er”), literally “buy a coffee/café” sounds more like purchasing the establishment of a café – that's not how you invite someone out in France (although it would work in Quebec, which I seriously doubt they were aiming for). This phrasing is backwards translation from English intentionally to make the video more impressive. Once again I ask if they tested this app on or consulted anyone but English speakers? And what does that really demonstrate, that the voice recognition works on non-natives?
  • I highly doubt the advertisement is actually even using the app. It's pre-recorded audio, and the timing is suspect based on how the app is supposed to be used. If true, the ad is once again extremely misleading

If you speak slowly into it in standard formal dialect without much of an accent, it may indeed work well enough to recognise what you said and its translation may be good enough to get the gist (albeit with the exact same translation problems I've listed above for the previous app), but then advertise it as such.

[Edit: I've been sent more info that shows that in other demonstrations, Vocre have intentionally had natives speak unnaturally to misrepresent how good their app is. In one a Chinese phrase is reworded into Chinglish, and a basic number is translated wrong. If you don't speak these languages you are impressed, but I see it as deceitful the way they are demonstrated.]

Chatting up a girl is something that would usually involve informal register and tone, which is a lot harder to translate, and even more difficult for voice recognition to pick up. For example, I find it unlikely that many voice recognition apps would accurately pick up someone informally saying a simple French phrase like “I don't know”. Rather than “Je… ne… sais… pas”, it would come out as “Ché pas” as described in this video (others here).

I've even praised the Google Translate app myself – and I always glance at a dictionary app to help me when I'm starting out in a language. But that's the point; these tools can help us ease in while we are learning the language. I use Google Translate quite a lot in the early stages of all language learning. But suggesting that they can replace the learning process at this point in time is ludicrous.

We have a long way (decades or centuries) to go before you can rely on technology before needing to learn the language

I still recommend that people install the Google Translate app. As faulty as its translations are, I like the work Google does to try and make it produce the best it can based on context analysing (rather than dictionary translations), and especially that this tool is free. The two apps above and many others deserve some serious criticism, because they are both commercial products and their advertisements are terribly misleading.

Looking through the Youtube comments and reading the messages I get when people send me these links, I see that some people think that learning the language will very soon become obsolete thanks to this technology. As if!

Among many other issues, relying on such technology ignores how crucially important non-verbal communication is to understanding what you are being told. An app that relies entirely on audio, no matter how sophisticated it may be, and no matter what processing power the hardware has or online database it accesses, will never take this into account and always fall short of being able to translate fully.

Something I like to remind people of is that I've got a degree in electronic engineering. My speciality was in (digital) communications, and I worked in Paris for nine months as pre-sales technical support (for English clients) at a company that developed the voice recognition system used by Les Pages Jaunes (the French yellow pages). I am well aware of many aspects of how these systems technically work (as would the programmers), but I'm also aware of how languages and translation work (which apparently not a single iPhone app developer involved in these would).

Mark my words: Based on my experience in both fields I can tell you right now that no app will ever make learning a language obsolete.

At best, these devices may some day (definitely not now) allow you to have a superficial and basic touristy Q&A in non-noisy environments without needing to learn the language, and may indeed aid short-term tourism. But if you want anything deeper than the superficial life of an English speaking tourist and all you miss out on because of that, you will not get it from technology – at least not for the many decades.

If these zealous devs are to make a real difference in this time and create something that works beyond marketing and gimmicky and false videos, they need to consult experienced and successful language learners, foreign language natives and second language acquisition and translation linguists, and of course professional translators.

And when they do, they would do well to present its limitations honestly in their commercials.

As you can see, this stuff really annoys me – mostly because it encourages laziness among monolinguals.

Learning a language is extremely rewarding and very much accessible to everybody regardless of age and wealth. Despite the great advances in technology we've made, the universal translator (and even a fully functional single language translator) will remain science fiction for a very long time.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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