Thursday, February 12, 2015

GT app

So today in class we were talking about technological innovations in our field, and I happened to mention that in language learning, the big one was the new Google Translate app, which you could hold up to anyone who is speaking any language and it would translate it into any other language. Now by "any" I mean the top thirteen, and right away my colleague who was really interested in Mongolian was asking whether it had Mongolian, but of course the GT guys have barely started with Mongolian, let alone Kazakh, Hopi, Tongan, or Jamaican Creole.

After a few minutes a woman admitted that she had it, and she even showed her phone. Sure enough, there was an app on it and I spoke "Hello how are you" into it, and it translated it into Arabic. I took her word for it that it was reasonably good Arabic, not perfect, she said. By now students from the next class were entering and we were under pressure to leave; all this happened when class was essentially over. But when one student said, "of course it'll do 'How are you,' but what about anything else?" I tried "Open your book to page 143 and write ten sentences" in a kind of reflex ESL-teacher mode. She again translated it into Arabic. It worked, she said. Not perfect, but it worked. An Iranian student vowed that she would download it immediately and see how it worked for her.

I didn't catch the name of the app. I also saw the list of available languages, which included Moldavian (???)...I have a fellow teacher from Moldova who insisted that wasn't her...but I reserved judgment on that because I'm well aware there could be a Moldavian and it could be among the top thirteen. Some people are obviously left out; in my class, I have Sri Lankans, Bengalis, a Brazilian Portuguese speaker (who was gone)...a few more. More on this later. This is what I want to know.

1. Obviously it's ok if you hold the phone right up to someone's mouth and they speak loudly and clearly right into it. But at what point does this fall apart? The back of a small class where people are whispering? A crowded cafe? Where is it most useful and least useful?

2. Obviously the skill involved in using it is a kind of grammar's possible that the computer is quite effective at figuring out the words it has just heard. Also it reportedly can figure out which language it's listening to, though I saw her specify, Eng. to Arabic. So - can you set it on figure out the language? Does it make mistakes with the words? If so which ones? How much descrambling do you have to do?

3. How fun is it to use? Do you enjoy it? Or do you have to hide it from the average teacher?

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