by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, April 12, 2018
In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams dreamt up the Babel fish. This small, yellow, leech-like creature was described as “probably the oddest thing in the universe”, for – when inserted into the ear – it could instantly translate any form of language.
This is one of many things that Douglas Adams got right. Other futuristic inventions mentioned in the book include touch-screen technology and voice command. Arguably the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself – a contributor-fuelled guide to the universe – was a precursor to Wikipedia.
His technological explanation of the Babel fish (feeding on brain wave energy) wasn’t quite right, but we’ll let him off. It turns out it’s actually bluetooth. In October last year, Google unveiled a set of headphones called Google Pixel Buds, offering real-time translation between 40 different languages using their smartphone.
The translation software allows users to both listen to and speak in foreign languages. To listen, you hold down the earbud and it translates another spoken language into your mother tongue in your ear. To speak, you simply say “let me speak French” and the smartphone will automatically translate your words through the phone’s speakers.
Sounds perfect, particularly for people keen to interact with locals on their travels. But, according to Markus Witte, CEO of leading language translation company Babbel, no immediate translation service will ever replicate a real conversation.
Launched in 2007 by “four arrogant tech guys who thought they’d build a fantastic app” (Markus’s words, not mine), Babbel has gone on to become the top-grossing language app in the world. The service has over one million paying customers with a choice of 14 languages – spanning from English (its most popular) to Indonesian (one of the easiest languages to learn, apparently).
Travel is the number one motive for people signing up to the app, with 40 per cent of users saying this is why they want to learn a new language. Witte thinks he knows why the app’s popularity continues to grow.
“The pixel buds are still underwhelming,” he tells me. “It’s surprising how much the public discourse and actual experience differ. It’s the same across the whole Artificial Intelligence (AI) field – we’re all so excited that we talk about stuff that’s not already happening right now.”
“The idea that it will work in the future, which is pretty clear, is still very exciting,” he adds.
Asked whether he thinks translation devices will ever replicate a normal conversation, Witte replies: “No. Because you don’t hear the voice of the other clearly. You get the information, yes, but every language has its own way of describing the world. If you learn a new language, you usually also learn a new way of looking at the world.”
Digressing on this point, Witte gives an example of the difference between German and English. “In German we have very powerful words and we think more about things. English is very strong towards verbs, so the English language suggests more ways of doing things. If you look at how philosophy has evolved in different countries, they are strongly influenced by the language. If you ever try to read Hegel in English, good luck. It’s a nightmare.”
So even a Babel fish wouldn’t cut the muster? “Even if you have a Babel fish in your ear, you want to speak directly. If you speak to someone who speaks a different mother tongue but they speak good English, you eventually come around and think ‘maybe I want to learn a bit about their language’.
“When you think back to the time they invented telephones, some people feared that people would never meet up if they could speak on the phone. That didn’t happen at all. People met more. There’s a strong correlation between how much you’re on the phone and how much you meet people. We are hardwired to talk face-to-face – as humans, we don’t speak to each other just to convey information.”
Judging by Google searches over the last ten years, the interest in learning language through an app continues to grow. Over the last ten years, the number of searches for "Language learning app" has steadily risen.
However, Witte doesn’t write off real-time translation entirely. “Real time translation can be part of the language learning journey. Imagine you’re travelling in a country where you don’t speak the language but you’re with somebody who does – it would help a lot.” He sees it as supplementary to the language learning process, rather than a solution to communicating with people overseas.
There’s much speculation about technological developments in the language-learning sphere, but Witte is sceptical. “Virtual Reality (VR) is very immersive tech, and because of that it’s hard to fit into your day. With an app, the entry point into reconnecting with language learning is very easy and always there, but with VR you need to dive into another world – it needs to come a long way.
“It’s Augmented Reality (AR) that is exciting. What got me excited recently was the combination of AR with audio. Bose built a pair of glasses that use surround sound, meaning they don’t give you the images visually but rather through audio. There’s loads to come there.”
Witte speaks candidly about the best form of language-learning – and it’s not VR, AR or even Babbel.
“The best you can ever have is a personal tutor,” he tells me. “If you have the chance to work with a real teacher in the real world, it’s better than anything you can get digitally. A language-learning app is best used as an addition to a course, or for people who don’t have the money or the time for tuition.”