From businesses to individuals, everyone knows the increasing importance of being able to communicate in more than one language. The internet together with cheap and easy travel means that opportunities both corporate and personal are now available on an international scale. Today, people can make friends with someone who lives thousands of miles away by taking advantage of social networking. A scientist can publish a research report and know that someone in a different country can read it. A business can set up a manufacturing base on one continent and reach customers on another. The only skill all these parties need in order to succeed at their goals is the ability to speak another language. It is for these reasons and many more that language learning at school and qualifications remain popular.

However, just as technology has made the world a smaller place, it is hoped it will now make communicating in different languages easier. From internet translation tools to smartphone apps for both translation and interpreting, there is a lot on the market to choose from.

Machine translation

BBC technology show Click notes that the ability to speak another language is vital in a world where globalisation means speaking just one language is no longer adequate. Presenter Lara Lewington investigates the different types of technology currently available and considers whether it will be a replacement for traditional language learning any time soon.

The most recognisable translation technology currently available is the online version, where the user types in the phrase they require and the technology translates it. This type of machine translation is probably also the most recognisable language technology on the market.

Ms Lewington explains that online translators such as Google and Bing learn languages in a similar way to humans by researching and memorising information. However, while a human uses a phrase book or attends a class, a machine searches through and memorises huge amounts of online content that has already been translated by humans. From this, it is able to recognise specific recurring patterns between different language pairs, which help it to understand how a certain language works and how it relates to another. The more common a language pair, the more reliable the machine translation will be, but for the less recurring languages the quality of the results might be questionable.

Why are smartphones so smart?

Away from online translations there are apps. Click tested out the quality of the Google Translate app and the iTranslate app. These are able to verbally interpret words spoken into them in the target language. Click tried it using an Italian and a Turkish speaker and found the results were mixed, and in some cases the interpretation was gibberish. It also revealed that these apps worked better when the phrase was typed in rather than spoken.

Typing on a smartphone is not the most convenient way to communicate with someone in a different language, but future technology could solve this. Google Glass is a wearable computer shaped like a pair of spectacles, which displays a computer screen on the eye glass and responds to voice commands. Ms Lewington tested out a prototype of the technology by asking it to translate a phrase. The computer then displayed the written phrase on the screen and spoke it through the earpiece so she knew the correct way to pronounce it. This could be more useful while on holiday than relying on a phone.

However, for the time being, the smartphone is the only translation technology holidaymakers have at their disposal aside from the traditional phrasebook. According to Click, although there are numerous translation apps available, many of them need to be connected to the internet in order to work. When travelling abroad, this means users can face substantial data roaming charges. The ones that work offline and cover multiple languages, on the other hand, can take up a lot of storage and Click claims they are not as good as the online versions.

Shalom Lappin, professor of computational linguistics at King’s College London, tells the show it may be some time before translation technology rivals human skill. “When you translate from one language to another you have to make all sorts of decisions about how to interpret words and phrases in your own language and in the language you’re going into. And those decisions, if you don’t make them properly, will produce garbage,” he says. Based on this, technology needs to undergo further developments before it replaces the traditional phrasebook.

A toast to translation

One app that you could use alongside your phrasebook when heading abroad is Pivo. The fact ‘pivo’ is the Czech word for ‘beer’ may give you a clue as to what this app does and why it would be a useful tool to take on holiday. The app allows users to order a beer in 59 different languages, including Yiddish and Zulu.

The tool is the brainchild of Justin Amey and Ollie Hepworth from Bournemouth, who came up with it while on holiday in the Czech Republic after they realised they didn’t know what to say to order a drink at the bar. Their invention will provide the phrase necessary for ordering a drink in the native language of the country they are visiting. To ensure users say it correctly they will also receive the phonetic pronunciation and film footage of a native speaker saying the phrase that they can copy.