Taking down language barriers one word at a time

How many languages can you speak? Probably just one or two, right? Most of use can understand key words or phrases that we have committed to memory for when we travel abroad, but as there are over 6,000 languages in the world today, trying to communicate effectively with someone beyond casual greetings can be a major hurdle at every border.

If you are familiar with basic science fiction you are probably aware of the universal language translator concept. Space travel means meeting new worlds with beings whose languages must be understood to have a story to follow. It is usually done smoothly with a device you barely notice but expect to work flawlessly and unobtrusively.

The concept will soon no longer be a work of science fiction.

Work on the first devices began about four years ago to aide in situations where people of different languages needed to communicate about emergency situations. Verbal assistance in these instances can be misunderstood to the point of suggesting dangerous alternatives. Imagine telling someone not to re-enter a building that is on fire. If the visual clues they are using to try to understand your language don’t involve smoke and fire, the results could be deadly.

Here’s how it will work. When the user’s voice is detected by voice recognition software in the device, a custom speech and translation engine will determine what is being said and translate it. A few seconds after the initial interaction is complete, the translation with be given via a speaker, providing real-time communication. Responses will be translated back into the language of the person who initiated the conversation.

While not able to translate word for word, idioms, or slang, enough aspects of each language can be conveyed to ensure both persons are understood. It will only be available to translate English into other languages at first, with about a dozen other languages planned soon thereafter. Be on the lookout for these devices as they filter into mainstream use within state and federal emergency management departments in 2020.