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.