Will Skype Translator Make Learning Languages Irrelevant?

Skype Translator recently launched in two additional languages—Mandarin and Italian. This means that Skype's Chinese and Italian users can now converse in real-time with English-speaking counterparts without having to know English or vice-versa. To pick up emerging signs from Microsoft's recently launched advertisement in China, it makes you wonder if future generations won't need to spend the time and effort to learn other languages.

Skype Translator lets users interact by verbal means and via an instant messenger. While the latter supports a myriad of languages, the former is far more complex in nature. The accent and delivery of speech varies from person to person and from culture to culture. This diversity makes it harder to form standard patterns to recognize and translate speech automatically.

This comment by corporate vice president of Skype Gurdeep Pall highlights that the problems related to interference could impact the quality of the conversation. “Any sound that goes into the microphone, you basically have logic running trying to figure out what the sound said. You can have feedback or you can have somebody coughing faraway that the mic picked up, somebody shifting far away, the squeak from their foot.”

In order to deal with the complexities of verbal communication, Microsoft added powerful features to the latest version of Skype Translator:

  • the option for partial translations, which reduces the delay time between when someone finishes speaking and when a translation starts
  • the ability to mute audio for customers who prefer to read translation vs. hearing it spoken
  • the addition of text-to-speech recognition, allowing users to switch between text-to-speech and speech-to-speech translation 

Though these features will make conversations using Skype Translator more usable, Microsoft is continuously working to improve upon the experience with extensive focus on neural networks, which allows machines to learn the same as humans do. The quality of conversation using the Skype Translator isn’t perfect yet, but given that the underlying technology is getting better with time and more data, it will likely attain a workable perfection in the future.

As Skype Translator does away with its perceived limitations, it can prove to be a killer app for wearable devices, which are intensely in need of more viable ways to interact with users. Among other uses, enterprises can certainly see Skype Translator as a viable option for replacing human language interpreters.

Despite obvious advantages, automatically translated spoken words may have some limitations too. Such technology cannot replace the need to be culturally sensitive while speaking. For example, in Brazil, touching the thumb to the index finger is a disrespectful gesture, whereas Americans see this as a sign for OK. Similarly, the many cultures that appreciate people knowing their native culture would no longer be subjected to this flattery.

What Skype is doing now with real-time translation would have been considered science fiction as little as five years ago. In his recent email to Microsoft’s employees on the organization’s fortieth anniversary, Bill Gates mentioned Skype Translator as one of the notable innovations. While Skype Translator is in the process of being perfected, it will certainly have a lasting impact in the way humans communicate across cultures.

Do you agree?

About the Author

TechWell Insights To Go

(* Required fields)

Get the latest stories delivered to your inbox every week.