New Bridge to Language Learning

By Emily Blackner

In today’s world of increasingly global connections, knowledge of other cultures and languages is a vital component of success. New technology developed by educators in Germany aims to do just that by encouraging students to study abroad.

A team at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology’s (KIT) Institute of Anthropomatics has developed the world’s first computer-based automatic translation service. The instructor’s words are recorded using speech recognition software. The computer then transcribes the lecture and translates this written version into an English transcript, all in real time. The technology is also interactive; students can move the cursor on their laptop or mobile phone over the original German text to produce a pop-up window showing the translation of that specific phrase.

The technology isn’t yet perfect. Speech recognition has long been problematic due to natural variations in accents.

“It’s clearly making mistakes, and sometimes the output is awkward,” said Alex Waibel, the leader of the development team. Waibel currently teaches computer science at KIT and at Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. “But that’s not the point. A little awkwardness is worth it [if] students are enabled to better follow the lectures in spite of language barriers.” He also said the service works better if teaching aids like Powerpoint presentations or transparencies are scanned in advance, since some subjects use specialized terms or technical phrases that might otherwise trip up the machine.

KIT has been using this automatic translation service on a trial basis in its informatics and mechanical engineering departments since April, with positive results.

“Students are only admitted if they have passed a German proficiency test, but they still say it takes one or two years to be good enough to follow lectures,” Waibel said. The software helps students bridge this gap.

Technology like this translator could make students who would otherwise be put off by the language barrier more open to the possibility of studying abroad. The Open Doors survey conducted by the Institute for International Education found that nineteen of the top twenty-five destinations for American students studying abroad were countries where a language other than English was the primary language.

Of course, there are also possible negative repercussions. Four scholars at the University of California at Riverside recently published a paper showing that the number of colleges offering Romance language and German majors has “significantly declined between 1971 and 2006,” as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

These numbers do not even take into account the current recession, which has many schools slashing budgets. If technology like this were to become more widely used, students might see less of a need for a language major ─ even with growing global connectedness ─ leading to further cuts. Language programs are already being cut in major U.S. institutions like the University of Central Missouri, the University of North Carolina system, and the State University of New York at Albany.

The translator might then be combined with live-streaming technologies like Skype to allow interested students to receive instruction from professors at other universities here or abroad, allowing students at schools without formal departments to have some form of language instruction.

Yet some education experts worry that virtual techniques do not provide the same quality of instruction as face-to-face classes. Bill Ferriter, a fellow with the Teacher Leaders Network (a project of the Center for Teaching Quality), worries about motivation: “While kids may initially love technology-inspired lessons in schools simply because they are different from the paper-driven work that tends to define traditional classrooms, the novelty of new tools wears off a lot quicker than digital cheerleaders like to admit… They are [instead] motivated by the important people in their lives.”

The nature of this technology means it is designed to feed of off teachers and classmates (the “important people” Ferriter mentions), mimicking a traditional learning environment ─ one that could include students from around the world. “If you could sit around a virtual conference table and have everybody essentially communicate with each other [so] you don’t really notice anymore that there’s a language barrier, that’s the ultimate goal,” said Waibel.

Emily Blackner is a senior at Washington College majoring in English with a minor in political science. Washington College is home to the Theta of Maryland chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.