How many languages do you speak?

The exponential march of technology will see real time language translation permeate our lives within the very near future. Eliminating the concept of a language barrier, and with the proliferation of mobile technology seeing developing countries skip entire generations of infrastructure development, this technology has the potential to accelerate globalization at a rate far faster than we can imagine. Alec Ross in The Industries of the Future shares,

The most interesting innovations in machine translation will come with the human interface. In ten years, a small earpiece will whisper what is being said to you in your native language near simultaneously to the foreign language being spoken. The lag time will be the speed of sound. Undetectable. The voice in your ear will not be a computer voice like Siri. Because of advances in bioacoustic engineering measuring the frequency, wavelength, sound intensity, and other properties of the voice, the software in the cloud connected to the earpeice in your ear will recreate the voice of the speaker, but speaking your native language.

We already have Skype Translator, an online real time translation service for Skype. Currently it supports seven languages for voice calls and more than fifty languages for instant messaging. It is developing in sophistication almost daily as it uses machine learning algorithms which increase its efficacy the more it gets used. Pilot is one of the first attempts at developing a smart earpeice language translator that sees the convergence of wearable technology and machine translation. It won’t be the last. The small team developing this product has just been successful in its crowd funding campaign raising 3170% of its initial funding goal.

What does all this mean for the future of language learning? Not much at the moment. It will take many years before the technology reaches maturity. In the immediate short term we will see learners and institutions take advantage of the increasing capabilities of machine language translation in current learning contexts. Whether a non native speaker is sitting in a physical classroom or accessing their education virtually, the assistive capabilities of real time language translation will enable a deeper engagement and provide new levels of accessibility for the keen but less proficient non native speaking student.

With international education in Australia being a $20 billion industry, any institutional strategy for developing students’ English language proficiency and capability should consider the implications of the emerging technology of machine translation.