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Opinion: Language Translation Apps Come of Age

Translation applications driven by artificial intelligence are showing promise for schools in improving communications with parents and students. As these technologies advance, so do the possibilities for their use.

Though it still seems a bit like science fiction, we’ve reached the day where we can speak or type into our smartphones and have an artificial intelligence interpreter translate our speech or text into another language.

This is a game-changing tool for travelers, as well as for those of us who are monolingual English but live in the Southwest where Spanish is the primary language for many residents.

I often use Google Translate to communicate with folks I hire to do work at our place. I type and print my translated notes for them. And though it’s still awkward — mostly because I’m self-conscious using it, as are those I’m talking to — I can speak into my phone and have the app do speech translation into Spanish. And my Spanish-speaking counterparts can do likewise in reply. It makes for stilted conversations, as well as some laughs, but it works. Which is probably how my grandparents felt when they first used a telephone.

In education, these translation applications are proving beneficial for teachers in communicating with non-English-speaking parents. Education-specific translation apps have also entered the market and are being adopted by schools with encouraging results.

A recent Hechinger Report article highlights a school district in Ohio that’s using the TalkingPoints app for translating text messages between teachers and their non-English-speaking parents. Having TalkingPoints has been a particular relief for the one Spanish-speaking teacher at an elementary school, exhausted by her previous role as the ad hoc translator for her colleagues. And since adopting TalkingPoints, her school’s text exchanges with parents have almost doubled.

Text translations are the primary way schools are using translation apps. Whether it’s for translating text message exchanges with parents or embedding translation apps in school websites, machine translations have become commonplace in education. And though the accuracy of the translations may be suspect, they’re generally serviceable as a fast solution.

However, though districts typically encourage the use of machine translation tools for parents, they also recognize these apps’ inadequacies, and to avoid liability issues, schools will often include an online disclaimer that the English versions of their websites are the official ones.

Most large school districts with diverse populations, or those that serve a high percentage of families where English is not the home language, employ interpreters and translators. Interpreters may be paraprofessionals who work with students and parents in class or during school meetings, whereas professional translators, either district staff or contractors, are employed to translate official district documents into their districts’ supported languages.

According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent cases, parents have the legal right to receive official district information translated into a language they can understand. And given the wide range of languages now represented in many areas of the country, this is a significant responsibility for schools. Especially since machine translations like Google Translate are deemed legally unacceptable for the task.

With the growth of machine translation tools, professional translation advocates are working to highlight the shortcomings of these applications. And though translators recognize the speed and cost-effective advantages of translation apps, they believe in the value of the services they provide to ensure accurate and culturally sensitive translations that AI-driven applications cannot yet match.

But “yet” is the operative word here. Because as we use AI-driven applications like Siri and Alexa in our daily lives and marvel at their growing sophistication (while still grumbling about their failings), and driverless vehicle technology continues to advance, it’s not hard to foresee a near future where AI-powered translation tools will rival their human counterparts.

Like the bright yellow Babel fish from "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" that when placed in one’s ears provides real-time translations of any language, companies are developing wearable interpretation devices with the goal of achieving similar results. Waverly Labs is one such company, and its Ambassador device has earbuds that sync with a smartphone app, allowing individuals speaking different languages to carry on real-time conversations when each is wearing an earbud.

So, similar to a United Nations assembly, it probably won’t be long before the tech is affordable for a teacher to talk with a class of students, each speaking a different language but wearing a translation device, and have her speech translated into the students’ native languages. And then have their responses translated back into English.

The advent of AI-driven translation tools is already making some question the need for learning foreign languages, now that digital devices can handle many of our interpretation and translation needs. But like the argument made not so long ago against the necessity for learning computational math once handheld calculators became common, this one also doesn’t hold water.

However, the advantages that translation tools can offer educators, students, travelers and commerce alike are very real. And the possibilities for these tools to enhance our lives will only increase as the technologies advance. Nonetheless, I still would be better off if I had learned Spanish. And if I had, the shed we had constructed on our property might not be considerably taller than planned.
Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.