In high school French class, my teacher warned us within an inch of our lives not to use Google Translate or other machine translation software. Not only did she consider it cheating to depend on the internet instead of our own brains, but she also found the translations were often incorrect. Verbs wouldn’t conjugate correctly, or Translate would pull outdated verbiages that weren’t culturally relevant.
Google’s recent announcement to release wireless earbuds that can translate multi-language conversations in real time is interesting, to say the least. The Bluetooth buds aren’t wireless altogether; they feature a wire connecting the two earpieces behind the neck but no wire that plugs directly into a phone. Ideally, they will not be limited to Google-only phones.
The idea behind this feature is to break down language barriers by wearing the buds when speaking to someone of a different linguistic background. The buds could aid in political conversations among foreign nationals, or help a French-speaking man connect with his fiance’s Spanish-speaking parents. It could open up opportunities for residents who aren’t fluent in their country’s national language. It could help grandparents and grandchildren understand one another for the first time.
The stipulation here, of course, is whether it’s done right. Voice recognition software — which can respond to or transcribe the spoken word — is not new. Society has grown accustomed to a relationship with Siri or Alexa. Products such as Dragon Speech Recognition Software save doctors and police officers from manually inputting data on patients and suspects by allowing them to speak their notes into being in the form of transcription software. But even these products have their misunderstandings.
(While many voice-to-text translation fails are too risque to include in this blog post, I encourage you to look them up on your own time. They’re sure to have you rolling.)
Photo courtesy of Buzzfeed
Language recognition and translation is unique from speech recognition software in that it not only understands our words, but then takes and delivers them to someone else in a different format. We have to wonder if words will be twisted, or taken out of context. Could it successfully negotiate the details of legal contracts? Will it help make accurate travel agendas or hotel reservations?
Using the buds for Google Translate in a professional setting still has many liabilities attached. It may be a while before international adoptions and foreign property purchases are performed with buds in tow (or in ears). But for now, perhaps it’s enough just to sit across from someone of a different background at a coffee shop, really hearing them for the first time.