Translation software is better than ever, but is it good enough? Here are a few reasons why the free translation tools at our fingertips should be used sparingly.
One of the most talked about ads from Super Bowl Sunday was Google Translate’s 100 Billion Words commercial. It spoke directly to our hearts — breaking down barriers through language and communication, the value of travel and culture, the importance of the shared human experience. But it also brought up the question — can you really get by with just a translation app? And more importantly, should you?
For us, the short answer is — no. Long answer? If you want authentic experiences, real connections, and to save yourself some embarrassment, translation software alone just won’t cut it. Here’s why.
The lack of context can lead to embarrassing situations for everyone
Not only are languages complicated, the words we choose are influenced by the situational, social, and cultural context in which they are used. Without this information, computer-generated translations often fall short of conveying accurate meanings.
In fact, the context in which you are communicating will influence the type of language you use, often in ways you may not be used to in your native tongue. For example, native English speakers visiting a country like Korea or Japan may not know that the age of the person you are talking to will dictate which words you should use, even if the words have the same meaning — and choosing the wrong turn of phrase can cause serious offense.
That’s right, some languages have rules that depend solely on factors your translation app might not have been programmed to consider. Sure, your heart might be in the right place, and your conversation partner may be forgiving, but do you really want to risk it?
Our advice: No one’s perfect, but learning cultural facts in tandem with your language studies allows you to show respect to the people whose mother tongue you are speaking.
Inserting a phone into your conversation creates a mental barrier
Language has the power to connect humans across cultural, political, and geographical divides — keyword: human.
Since the increase of affordable and portable smart devices like phones and tablets, researchers have begun to pay special attention to the way these devices affect human interaction. Studies have found that having a smartphone out in front of two people in a conversation — whether it’s on or off, flipped over, or “hidden” in peripheral — can distract them both.
Unprecedented global connectivity between billions of humans around the world? Awesome — amazing even. Inserting that global connectivity between you and the person across the table? Maybe not so much.
Our advice: Your full attention in a conversation is one of the best gifts you can give, and a reward in itself. When you don’t rely on your phone, you’ll pick up on the nuances of body language, learn new vocabulary, and be present to experience real, authentic interactions.
Translation tech just isn’t there yet
Many translation tools use algorithms that are based on statistics, and work by analyzing patterns in documents in order to come up with what the tool thinks is the best translation. Language, an evolving, culturally-dependent phenomenon, has (so far) been a beast far too big for translation apps to tame.
The tech is getting better — AI-based translators are now good enough to consider the entire sentence when producing a translation, not just word by word. However, the problem is that even a single sentence isn’t good enough; there are still variables to consider like idioms, dialects, and accents. The latest tech still jumbles simple sentences, leaving the unaware traveler confused as to whether they are standing in line waiting for the next airport shuttle — or for their lunch.
And then there is human bias. With technology blindly processing millions of documents and giving us its best guess, human biases are reflected in the output, making for some unsavory patterns and unfair results for less widely spoken languages.
Our advice: Technology can indeed help you learn a language, but make sure you choose learning software created by certified linguists and native-speaker instructors that gives you an edge in communicating and interpreting with confidence in any situation.
You miss out on the personal benefits of learning a language
Language is more than just a way to communicate — it opens up a completely new world to the speaker. Through learning a language, you may discover your adventurous side, or become a better leader.
Multilingualism improves academic performance and makes you more hireable, encourages empathy and openness toward other people, and has even been proven to stave off age-related cognitive decline — that’s powerful stuff. By always reaching for your phone for the answer, you’re cheating yourself out of building those neurological pathways and all the benefits that learning a language can offer.
So, when is it okay to use translation software?
Good question. Our answer: when you already have some working knowledge of the language, and can use it as a tool to aid your learning — not something to rely on. We’re excited about the way translation software is evolving, but nothing replaces the real thing.
You are your best bet when it comes to communicating in a new language. Ready to get started? Click the link below to create a profile with Mango and try a few lessons for free — or log in to pick up where you left off.
What have you experienced when using translation software? Has it been a help or a hindrance? Share your experiences with us in the comments.