Could a Machine Spare You Hours Spent in Spanish Class?

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You might soon be able to "speak" a foreign language through a computer program, but there are other reasons to learn a new tongue.

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Imagine a conversation between two people, one a Spanish-speaker who knows no English, and the other an English-speaker who knows no Spanish. No dictionaries or crazed charades are involved. Yet, they speak to one another, in their own voices, and understand each other perfectly. How so? Through a machine that translates their words and renders them into another language in a robotic voice closely mirroring how they sound in their native tongue.

It's not real -- yet -- but the long-time dream of the universal translator is getting tantalizingly closer. Microsoft researchers recently demonstrated their new language-translation software at their campus in Washington, Technology Review reports. After an hour of "learning," the program can mimic a user's voice in 6 languages including English, Spanish, Italian, and Mandarin. The translated voice doesn't sound perfectly human, but it's not half bad -- certainly an improvement over that familiar mix of charades and Spanish 101. (Samples of the program's audio renderings are available here.)

The advantage of such a piece of tech are obvious for tourists, businesspeople, and immigrants. To be able to communicate across languages without ever having to learn the language amounts to the undoing of the division of Babel.

But for me, the hypothetical machine makes me realize that learning other languages has never been purely about communication. And that's a paradox -- what is a language for if not for communication? But learning another language is a process of building an understanding of another culture, and of your own, through an awareness of a language's idioms, puns, and the ways different words are connected to each other, such as how roots in Hebrew can tie words that are unrelated in English into a nexus of unexpected meaning. (For example, the words "whole" and "peace" are related in Hebrew.)

Nevertheless, even without understanding a language, it's incredible to think of what can be built on translation alone. You can, after all, not understand a lick of Spanish and still appreciate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work in translation. This program is the oral, real-time equivalent of that experience of reading literature in translation. It's not the same as reading the original, but it's not a bad substitute either.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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