Tagged: linguistics

Skype Translate: We’ll no longer have Paris.

Demonstration of Microsoft Skype's Universal translator

Demonstration of Microsoft Skype’s Universal translator

For linguaphiles everywhere, the idea that you might be able to communicate, instantaneously, with speakers of any language in the world, has always been the stuff of fantasy. But now perhaps Skype and Microsoft are turning that into reality.

I absolutely love this, and think it could be a truly powerful tool to break down communications barriers around the world. That said, it raises some really interesting questions for me:
  • Does it take away some of the magic of learning a new language? Is a world that gradually reveals itself to you as your skills develop somehow more beautiful than a world that is immediately revealed to you in its entirety thanks to a piece of software? A friend of mine used to quantify whether or not you could speak a language by your ability to date in it – if you knew enough French to go on a date with a native speaker, you could reasonably consider yourself pretty decent. This new app removes that curve, taking you instantaneously to total fluency. Which could be great news for international dating everywhere, but a bit of a shame for those who still believe in old-fashioned romance
  • The example in the video, while impressive, also doesn’t cover much in the way of slang, idioms, turns of phrase, irony, and all those other beautiful curlicues that make language such a pleasure. There’s a real question mark over how much of our spoken language consists of grammatical, semantic sentences, and how much consists purely of what linguists term ‘utterances‘, i.e. those meaningless bits of speech that we all use every day to communicate. This whole field is known as Pragmatics, and is a fascinating place to explore. I’d love to see how the Skype Translator deals with some of the issues raised in these areas. And of course, some terms are simply untranslatable.
  • Finally, Satya Nadella’s comments at the very beginning of the video open up some fascinating possibilities for those devotees of Chomskyian linguistics. Chomsky has always posited that there is some kind of ‘universal grammar‘ underlying all human language. That’s not to say that all languages have the same grammatical rules, simply that there are some basic elements of understanding the world that are universal (the existence of nouns, or perception of objects in three-dimensional space, might be examples of these). Nadella mentions at the beginning of the video that, once the system knew two or three languages, each subsequent language became easier to learn, but also that the system got better at handling the languages it already knew. Could this be because the algorithms are somehow making connections between multiple languages, and starting to understand the underlying logic behind them all? The possibility is certainly intriguing.
In the meantime, I’ll stick with my handy BabelFish.