Skype Translator will (also) be a tool for language learners

When I saw this video of Skype Translator I realized that beyond just(!) translation, it will be a powerful tool for language learning. Last night I got a glimpse of that near future. Our next door neighbor, Yolanda, came here from Mexico 30 years ago and is fluently bilingual. She was sitting outside with her friend, Carmen, who speaks almost no English. I joined them and tried to listen to their Spanish conversation. I learned a bit of Spanish in high school but I’ve never been conversational. Here in Santa Rosa I’m surrounded by speakers of Spanish, it’s an opportunity to learn, and Yolanda — who has worked as a translator in the court system — is willing to help.

I find myself on parallel tracks with respect to my learning of two different languages: music and Spanish. In both cases I’ve historically learned more from books than by ear. Now I want to put myself into situations that force me to set the books aside, listen intently, and then try to speak appropriately. I can use all the help I can get. Luckily we live in an era of unprecedented tool support. On the musical front, I’ve made good use of Adrian Holovaty’s SoundSlice, a remarkable tool for studying and transcribing musical performances it pulls from YouTube. I haven’t used SoundSlice much for annotation, because I’m trying to develop my ear and my ability to converse musically in realtime. But its ability to slow down part of a tune, and then loop it, has been really helpful in my efforts to interact with real performances.

I suspect that’s why Skype Translator will turn out to be great for language learning. Actually I’m sure that will happen, and here’s why. Last night I showed the Skype Translator video to Yolanda and Carmen. Neither is remotely tech-savvy but both instantly understood what was happening. Yolanda marveled to see machine translation coming alive. Carmen, meanwhile, was transfixed by the bilingual exchange. And when she heard the English translation of a Spanish phrase, I could see her mouthing the English words. I found myself doing the same for the Spanish translation of English phrases.

That’s already a powerful thing, and yet we were only observers of a conversation. When we can be participants, motivated to communicate, the service won’t just be a way to speak across a language gap. It’ll be a way to learn one another’s languages.

No disclosure is needed here, by the way, because I’m a free agent for now. My final day with Microsoft was last Friday. In the end I wasn’t able to contribute in the ways I’d hoped I could. But great things are happening there, and Skype Translator is only one of the reasons I’m bullish on the company’s future.

7 Comments

  1. I’m looking forward to having that version of Slype.

    I’ve heard really positive comments about Madrigal’s Magic Key for learning conversational Spanish

  2. Jon, I was always curious about your MSFT experiment. How would this Internet Intellectual fare in the belly of the beast? To me, as a fan and also as a practicing programmer of a certain age, it’s heartening to note that this idea, expressed in your late 2006 Q&A about joining MSFT http://jonudell.net/udell/2006-12-08-a-conversation-with-jon-udell-about-his-new-job-with-microsoft.html:

    > the ideas and tools and methods that some of us take for granted haven’t really put down roots in the mainstream

    …still animates your work.

    Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention, but it did seem that I’d heard less from you since ’07. Well I’m paying attention now, and I expect to see and hear big things.

    PS Heavy Metal Umlaut http://jonudell.net/udell/gems/umlaut/umlaut.html could use a sequel—they figured out how to put an umlaut over an n in Unicode http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal_umlaut

    1. “but it did seem that I’d heard less from you since ’07.”

      It’s true. I began there in a quasi-journalistic role, that didn’t go well either for me or for Microsoft. I tried other things, settled on the Elm City experiment as a way of doing something I thought mattered in a way that would reflect well on Microsoft’s evolving platform, tools and mindset. But while that service still exists, and I’m open to it having a future, it never gained enough traction to justify a role at the company. I looked around for something else that made sense for me and just didn’t find it.

      So, time to reboot. Not sure what’s next, I’ll be doing some freelance writing and consulting while figuring that out. The snippet you quoted does still define my mission, though, and I hope I can find work that enables me to pursue that mission in some meaningful way.

  3. Hey Jon, I was looking for some one who can teach me speck Spanish via Skype and landed on your blog and then thought you teach Spanish . after reading your blog i found its about different things. as English is my 2nd language 3rd will be hard for me . learning english with skype was already hard. it took two years. Now skype making translator . definitely it will help a lots of people. but in my opinion it will be also not easy. Learning from a people is different from machine. I dont know how perfect it will be. currently i am taking help from http://preply.com/en/english-by-skype .

    Don’t know how long i have to wait for Skype translator . any way thanks for sharing . i learned a new things today

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