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Translation Apps Can Make Classes More Engaging, Inclusive

As artificial intelligence-driven translation technologies advance, teachers are starting to warm up to using translation tools such as Waverly Labs’ Forum interpretation app for classroom discussions.

Globe illustration with language speech bubbles showing different national flags.
Despite remaining limitations to language-translation technology, artificial intelligence-driven language interpretation tools have been continually improving in recent years to help flatten the language barrier in schools. According to a report last year from The Hechinger Report, schools in Ohio have been using the translation app TalkingPoints for text messages between teachers and non-English-speaking parents. Educators elsewhere have also made limited use of tools like Google Translate, iTranslate and Speak & Translate, which offer voice and text translations in dozens of languages.

Among the newest translation and interpretation apps is Forum, recently designed by the voice and language technology company Waverly Labs for large events such as lectures and webinars. According to the company’s website, Forum facilitates communication in over 20 languages and 42 dialects. Sergio Del Rio, Waverly’s vice president of product, said the tool can enable conversations between multiple languages in real time and can give users a full transcript of meetings and lectures in their language, among other functions.

“[Let’s say the] teacher is speaking English, and you have a few students that speak Arabic, and a few students that speak Spanish. Simultaneously, that [initial] ‘Hello, how are you is doing?’ is going to be translated,” he said. “We would argue that our interpretation and translation accuracy is better than anything else based off the way that we amalgamate data providers globally as to ensure that we’re always producing the best translation … In addition to that, we have a customization software which lets you fine-tune your vocabulary, and what that does is it allows you to add terminology and glossary terms that will essentially improve the accuracy.”

According to a recent news release sent to Government Technology, Forum has been used by companies like Uniqlo, a manufacturer based in Japan, and the fashion company Chanel, based in France, to facilitate multilingual meetings. It said the platform’s core technology captures speech, processes it in the cloud and delivers translations to devices, and can “handle ongoing fluid conversations with people in a natural and unimpaired way.” The news release added that Waverly’s portfolio of translation tools also includes the Ambassador Interpreter, an over-the-ear device providing near-simultaneous audio and text translations.

Andrew Ochoa, founder and CEO of Waverly Labs, said that while the tool was not originally marketed to the education sector, Forum’s ability to facilitate conversations in lectures and large meetings makes it well-suited for classroom discussions, adding that the tool has so far been piloted at a handful of schools in New York and in New Jersey, such as Palisades Park Jr/Sr High School.

“The benefit to Forum is that it’s a great ‘one-to-many’ experience, so you can have dozens or hundreds of people [speaking with one another],” he said, adding that transcript translations can help English-language learners better grasp the language over time and refer to those lecture notes later.

Natalie Conoscenti, a science teacher at Palisades Park who has used Waverly’s translation tools, wrote in an email to Government Technology that she had previously used tools like Google Translate, Microsoft Translator and PowerPoint Live for translating student questions, but Forum can help increase engagement among students still learning English. She added that today, most other translation tools are only well-suited for quick interpretations rather than in-depth conversations, which limits their use.

“Waverly Labs’ interpretation tools have been immensely beneficial in my classroom of English-language learners (ELL) as they assist in bridging language barriers I have with my students and promoting effective communication and understanding,” she wrote. “The increased engagement is a strong response to using [them]. When students can understand the content better, they are more likely to engage actively in classroom activities. These tools allow ELL students to participate in class discussions, ask questions and express their thoughts confidently, therefore fostering a more inclusive and interactive learning environment.”

Conoscenti wrote that one drawback to many translation tools is that their ability to handle dialects is limited. She said Forum’s ability to translate multiple dialects is one of its biggest selling points, along with the fact that students can use it by scanning a QR code rather than needing to download it.

“While these tools were adequate for quick translations when students had simple questions like, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?,’ I found that Waverly Labs offers a wider range of dialects, which is incredibly beneficial,” she wrote. “This feature enhances the students’ sense of community and belonging, as they can communicate in their native language rather than settling for something ‘close to it.’”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.