Technology to help you cross the language divide

Students collaborating
Working across language boundaries is mentally taxing.
[Image credit: college.library / College WisCEL via Flickr. CC BY 2.0]
Every day, students and researchers here at the University perform an incredible feat. Not only do they work together to make new discoveries, innovate and extend the boundaries of human knowledge. A large proportion of them do it in a foreign language.

Native English speakers can underestimate how much mental stamina is required of our international colleagues to follow lectures, contribute to seminars and write papers in English. Collaborative work is particularly demanding, requiring participants to shift between conversational and academic language in a range of formats, often with a mix of native and non-native English speakers.

People studying or working in a second language increasingly turn to mobile and digital tools for help. These can be used to look up unfamiliar words and phrases, check pronunciation and to clean up written English. But in a group setting these personal language tools can hamper the flow of conversation, preventing teams from building common ground. Recent research is investigating how language support tools could be used by an entire group as they collaborate.


When using a second language for written communication, in a medium such as online chat, people often try machine translation tools like Google Translate, which attempt to translate their words into the target language. However, these tools should be used with care, as they don’t always get it quite right…

Torture: Fried, Stewed, or Hotpot
The results of machine translation? Torture: Fried, Stewed, or Hotpot
[Image credit: Gavin White via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Failing to check automatic translations is a sure fire way to cause hilarity – and untold confusion. Recent research has investigated people’s perceptions of machine translation in online chat and reveals that the design of the user interface can play an important role in helping people to use machine translation wisely.

What’s really interesting is that it seems it’s best if the other parties know or believe that machine translation is being used. This suggests that in the future we might might start to see communication tools which encourage us to blame any language errors on the technology, rather than on the other person.

“Siri, take meeting minutes”

Spoken conversations are often tricky in a foreign language. On an Australian campus you’re likely to encounter a fair range of accents and and colourful expressions, which can bewilder the most competent of non-native English speakers – and indeed a good few of us native speakers from other parts of the world. In group discussions, rapid speech and obscure turns of phrase can be particularly confusing for second language speakers.

Speech recognition software could perhaps help out, by automatically generating real-time transcripts of the conversation. Research into the use of automated transcripts indicates that for best results the transcript must be seen by all participants, not just the non-native speakers. This encourages everyone to speak more clearly, and also allows people to edit the transcripts on the fly. As well as improving clarity, this allows people to get a better sense of the important points raised and the structure of the discussion, improving the conversation for everyone.

As speech recognition technology becomes increasingly available on computers and even smartphones, it seems quite feasible that we could soon start to see it integrated with collaboration tools. We can even imagine that technology which combines speech recognition and machine translation might help by highlighting  phrases that might be confusing, and automatically suggesting alternatives.

The future of multilingual technology

Interesting questions are raised by the prospect of this new wave of language technologies entering the University. Will they reduce the barriers to working with people from other backgrounds? Might they reduce pressure on students to hone their language skills? Could they weaken the hegemony of the English language in academia?

What’s clear is that these tools could reduce the mental effort required to communicate in a second language. This could allow students, researchers, and millions of other people around the globe to collaborate more effectively across language boundaries, and focus on solving the problems that really matter.

Have you got experience of working or studying in a second language? What do you think of the language tools you’ve used, and what would you like to see in future technologies?

4 Responses to “Technology to help you cross the language divide”

  1. jfrench says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I can get exhausted using my native language sometimes ( especially when switching writing styles- science to interest piece)! I can just imagine how exhausting it would be doing research and classes in second language!

    I imagine automated translators would struggle with slang terms and sayings that have double meanings. Perhaps not important for assignments, but would be for interpreting casual conversations or reading interest pieces.

  2. oselan says:

    That’s right! Studying in a second language, technology is quiet useful for me especially in doing personal tasks. That is the simple way to start with to understand advanced words and idioms. It is just temporary to remember though except you do the same words a lot so direct communication is always better to remember. Recent tool is just cool. All you need to do is scan the text and it is translated directly. Just imagine if I could have “glasses” as translator in the future.

  3. Sarah Webber says:

    Yes, great crowdsourcing, huh?! I love the Duolingo idea: hope it gets extended to more languages!

  4. mbarrand says:

    Check out this TED talk. I saw this a fair while ago but I thought that it was a brilliant use of man power in tiny but ultimately useful chunks. I had never thought that I would be helping with this but I guess I had been for years without even noticing. Chances are you have helped too!