About a week ago, Google quietly added Lao to its underappreciated Google Translate tool, bringing its total number of languages to 65. Personally, Google Translate will always have a special place in my heart: during a particularly late night working on an essay for a college Spanish class (I believe the prompt had something to do with environmental issues in Central America), flipping through a paper dictionary to find the Spanish translation of systemic biocomplexity (biocomplejidad sistémica, by the way) was just not an option.
I suspect language teachers have long rued the proliferation of free internet translation, but I’m not convinced they should be worried. As a reference tool, translation sites have an obvious use. If you’re going to look up a word in a dictionary anyway, you might as well use Google Translate to speed up the process. In fact, students are probably more likely to look a word up now that it’s so much more accessible, for better or worse. And for now, at least, the gap between human translation and internet translation is wide enough to be a noticeable flaw. For example, the first sentence of this paragraph, translated into Russian and then back to English again, reads: “I suspect the language teachers have long cursed the distribution of free online translation, but I’m not convinced that they should be concerned about”—close, but not quite.
Which brings us to this week, and news that Ashton Kutcher-backed start-up Duolingo is pursuing the insanely awesome goal of translating the entire internet and teaching people languages for free. Duolingo gives students sentences taken from the web in the language that they are trying to learn—depending on your language level, Duolingo finds you simple or complicated sentences, and has a whole bunch of help tools when you can’t figure out what exactly a 豬排 is (pork chop, for future reference ).
It’s an interesting idea that harnesses the best of the old maxim “many hands make light work.” By Duolingo’s estimate, one million people could translate all four million-plus English Wikipedia pages to Spanish in 80 hours. Of course, you can’t learn a language by reading and writing it, so Duolingo can also play audio of words you want to hear them aloud. Speaking? Well, you’re on your own there, althoughat Technapex we’re quite fond of Verbling. Or you could just go to class.