In biblical mythology, the linguistic plurality between groups of people was a punishment. God, it is written, punishes humankind for having the gall to build a tower – the tower of Babel – so that it might assault heaven. The punishment by God to humankind is severe: by making it hard for all of humanity to communicate in a common tongue, God restricts humankind’s ability to challenge divine power. Work on the tower is abandoned, and humankind is taught a lesson about pride.
Linguistic researchers in the present day disagree on the origins of plural languages. It is generally believed that separate languages developed as different environmental and cultural norms did the same. Our prehistoric ancestors would typically only communicate with nearby peers, leading to the development of distinct communicative methods. The American Linguistic Society has a wonderful article about the possible origins of language on their website. Theories about what might have been the catalyst for language include the mutation of a certain gene around 100,000 to 200,000 years ago and complex culture leading to a need for more complex communication.
Regardless of linguistic pluralism origins, it remains a great challenge to human communication. Translation of one language to another – and the teaching of foreign tongues – has been practiced by people for thousands of years. One of the most famous translation tools is the Rosetta Stone. Written on this stone slab, housed at the British Museum, is a decree about the Ancient Egyptian king Ptolemy. Importantly, the decree is written in both Ancient Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs. This allowed archeological linguists to translate hieroglyphic writing for the very first time, opening up all sorts of new knowledge about Egyptian history.
The challenges of translation and language education have inspired some amazing innovations in recent years. Bridging the language barrier using technology has helped individuals, organizations and governments collaborate and interact. Here are some of the most innovative current ideas in translation and language education.
Language Education Apps
As they have in a diverse group of fields, apps have revolutionized the way we learn languages. The most popular language education app, Duolingo, has been a runaway success. The company behind the app is worth a whopping 700 million dollars. The key to the app’s success? They have turned the process of learning a language into a game.
Learning a new language can be a hard slog, and it is notoriously difficult to keep up with regular learning. Apps like Duolingo make the daily dose of learning into an addictive and fulfilling process. Concepts such as points, rewards, and virtual trophies have been adapted from mobile gaming to serve as educational incentives. Daily alarms can be set, making it hard to ignore set educational routines. Difficulty gradually increases as the student progresses, eventually including complex grammar and hard-to-understand vocabulary.
As well as the praise that these apps have received for their addictive and extremely functional format, there has been some criticism leveled at them. Most criticism revolves around the fact that there is no real way of replicating the educational experience of a real teacher. A real teacher is able to effectively educate a student about the non-verbal, cultural, and insinuated aspects of a foreign language that are essential to meaningful communication. Experts typically suggest spending some time among native speakers or attending in-person lessons as well as using apps to give yourself a chance to learn the intricacies of a foreign language.
Translation Management Services
Translation management is the systematic process that manages the translation of text and other digital assets. This is an essential process for organizations wishing to have a global online presence. Traditionally, organizations would have to manually input the text on their websites into spreadsheets before sending them to a physical translator.
More recently, translation management services that utilize innovative software have sprung up. By utilizing algorithms that assess both the content and the context of a text, modern software can accurately create a translation that actually makes sense to a native speaker. This is a great innovation. Older attempts at software webpage translation created an odd, jarring piece of text that served largely to put prospective customers and collaborators from foreign lands off.
Google Translate is the ubiquitous on-the-spot translation tool used by over 500 million people. The service currently offers 103 languages. When it was first launched in 2006, the service used statistical machine translation. This process translates words by referencing them to similar ones held in a huge archive. This process inevitably leads to some pretty horrible and unnuanced translations. The clumsy early Google translations were often a bit garbled, but they allowed users to make at least some sense of a foreign text.
In 2016, Google completely revamped their translation service. Google translate now uses neural machine translation. Neural machine translation uses machine learning to compare whole sentences to the most relevant references. This allows the service to more accurately emulate the context in which words are used.
Google translate is phenomenally popular. While it can be clumsy to use in a face-to-face situation, it holds its own when you want to get a quick and rough idea of what somebody has written or when you want to communicate across the language barrier. It has been the headache of many a high school Spanish teacher trying to ensure that kids are actually learning a language instead of just looking one up on their phones.
Live Translation Devices
In Douglas Adams’ science-fiction comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the characters are able to communicate in alien tongues thanks to the use of a peculiar animal: the babel fish. The babel fish is “small, yellow, leech-like and probably the oddest thing in the universe.” Feeding on brainwaves, it excretes telepathic signals that allow the user to understand any language in the universe. Convenient.
Linguistic scientists are bringing us ever closer to being able to use something akin to a real babel fish. It isn’t a fish, of course, but rather a kind of wearable translation technology. Live translation devices are being developed by several companies around the world. They usually take the form of an earpiece connected to the internet. Perfection has not quite been reached, but we are well on the way to being able to eliminate the complicated effects of linguistic difference with technology!
Neural Machine Translation
Neural machine translation is what gives the latest translation services the ability to translate sentences with implications and context embedded into the translated text. This is a giant step forward. More traditional machine translation relied upon referencing words and sentences to follow grammatical rules and direct equivalents alone. Neural machine translation processes are able to assess what the abstract implication of a sentence might be by using complex machine learning.
The ‘neural’ aspect of this process is in reference to the way in which these processes streamline an understanding of language through an analysis developed by implication, much like the way a human brain learns. The mathematics behind the development of neural learning is immensely complex. It involves the creation of analytical algorithms that filter out irrelevant abstracted linguistic meanings. Technology giants like Google have embraced this innovation with open arms.