01 set 2014 The Babel fish, Skype translator and the end of the world as we know it…
I’m no futurologist but I have made two apocalyptic predictions in my time, both of which look like they might come true. The first was that I thought it was a very bad idea to try to convince the Chinese that they should adopt a Western lifestyle. Even before we knew what we know now about the effects on the climate made by mankind, it seemed that having one billion Chinese people driving cars and flying round the world was never going to be sustainable and that is proving to be true.
My other prediction was that one day, when technology made the idea of the Babel fish reality our ELT industry would fall apart.
The Babel fish appeared in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams:
“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”
One of the first online translators used the name, https://www.babelfish.com/ – it still exists but has been overtaken by Google, like so many other things.
Outside the realms of sci-fi, what I am really talking about is technology that would allow a speaker to speak in one language and for the person they are speaking to hear in another language. For this to work it would require two technical components: speech recognition and instant translation. Both of these are already ubiquitous – a lot of us already have speech recognition in our pockets in the shape of Siri on the latest Apple iPhones and instant translation is offered on many websites.
Fortunately neither of these technologies really works properly… yet.
We probably have all heard amusing stories about Siri failing – I once sent my mother an unrepeatable text message and this video brilliantly shows how speech recognition fails to allow for varieties in different accents.
You can also test Google Translate to see how it struggles to translate more than just single words by making it translate back and forth between two languages, like this:
Can Google make any sense of this passage whatsoever? Let’s check it out.
O Google pode fazer qualquer sentido desta passagem que seja? Vamos dar uma olhada.
Google can make any sense of this passage is that ? Let’s take a look .
Google pode fazer algum sentido desta passagem é isso? Vamos dar uma olhada.
…it doesn’t even notice that a question mark denotes a question.
However, in my opinion, it is only a question of time until both of these technologies do work. Microsoft has already announced that as part of its Skype acquisition, it is developing the ability for phone calls to be translated in real time, which it demoed in this video.
So what does this mean for us? Well, if you are a teacher ask yourself what percentage of your students is learning English because of a genuine love of the language? Probably quite low, isn’t it? Once technology means that you don’t need to know how to speak a foreign language, then that will be the percentage of students left in your class. Or left buying English language materials…