Imagine a gathering of the United Nations in New York.
All the different countries are represented—Russia, Japan, South Korea, the United States, etc.
China’s representative is giving an important speech… in Chinese.
So how can Russia’s representative understand what his colleague is saying?
Well, they have interpreters stationed in one of the back rooms, listening to the speech in Chinese and translating it.
That’s why, in footage of UN assemblies, we often see old people donning earphones, acting like cool millennials who are listening to Spotify. They’re actually following the speech being translated into their language.
That’s what an “in-ear translator” does.
What Are In-ear Translators?
Make no mistake, this technological marvel is not really in the headphones, but in the apps that you download on your smartphone. The miracle that happens in your ear is actually just magic piping the translation from your phone.
So what happens in the field is, you express something in English to somebody who only speaks, say, Japanese. They’ll hear your English in their Japanese. And, when they talk back to you, you get to hear what they said in English. You don’t need to type anything on your phone or open up a dictionary. You simply hear what was said in your own language. It’s that seamless.
Language barrier, boom! Gone.
We have arrived at a point in human history where AI is practically able to break down language walls. Voice recognition technology is at levels where it can understand some of the nuances of human communication.
Your phone’s mic can serve as an “ear” so your app can “listen” to what you’ve said. And hey, it actually “understands” what you mean. And, “knowing” what you mean, it can now translate the communication into the languages that you want.
And the “voice” that you hear? It can be so human it’s like having a personal UN interpreter doing the job for you.
The speed and accuracy with which the whole thing works, compared to what we had just a few years ago, is mind-boggling.
I mean, it’s still not at a point where translations come in “real time,” but they’re pretty fast and some companies are claiming “real time.” (There are still delays.)
Now, I don’t want you to think that in-ear translators are the solution to all your language learning nightmares. The technology, though already amazing, is still in its nascent stage. It doesn’t come cheap and it has a long way to go. There’s still a lot of room for improvement.
But speaking of “improvement,” these things are great for use by serious language learners—people who, instead of totally relying on technology, want to use it to learn a second (or a third) language.
How Language Learners Can Use an In-ear Translator to Study
Now, in-ear translators are a godsend for travelers or tourists who need translations fast. They can just walk up to some random stranger in Barcelona and not be deathly afraid that, due to some pressing situation, they’ll forget the “Dónde está el baño” (Where is the bathroom?) they’ve been rehearsing since they got off the plane.
The utility of the technology seems obvious enough. But for those who genuinely want to learn the language and not just ride on the coattails of machine translation, how might this magic be used?
Remember, it’s not just an in-ear translator.
As mentioned before, the real miracle happens in the app. And many of them can do more than just serve the translating needs of the occasional traveler, though that is the most celebrated functionality.
Many in-ear translators are actually multi-modal and can translate text, audio and even images. Language learners can make the most of other features—like dictionaries, text-to-speech and speech-to-text functionalities. Don’t know the translation of a word? Simply type it in a search box and the app will fetch the translation for you in Spanish, German, Italian, French, etc.
In addition to the translated audio provided, your phone will probably be displaying a written record of the conversation (in two languages) so you can actually track the whole thing.
You can deconstruct interactions, learning not only vocabulary but a healthy dose of grammar as well. Smart language learners can milk these apps for all their linguistic worth because the in-ear bells and whistles are actually built on top of some really solid machine translation technology.
The main thing that you’re missing out on from machine translation is context, but that can easily be solved with a FluentU Plus plan. FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons. With a Plus plan, you can take words from your translation learning and put them in a customized flashcard set that will quiz you and show you accurate definitions, video clips and usage examples.
So don’t just treat this thing solely as an in-ear translator. Because it’s so much more!
Use your in-ear translator for personal practice.
Language learners, in the privacy of their own homes, can put in-ear translators through their paces—playing both sides of the conversation.
They can say something in English or their native language and hear it translated in their target language. This is a cool way of memorizing how phrases and sentences sound in your target language. It’s a neat vocabulary exercise as well as ear-training.
(For further ear-training, you can find some speech online in your native language, and hear it translated one sentence at a time.)
But more importantly, you can go the other way and speak in your target language, and check to see if the app “hears” you and translates you properly. This is really valuable practice, probably the most productive personal practice you can have. You’re not just learning translations, you’re actually speaking in a different tongue. You’re getting your lips, tongue and mouth moving explicitly to the intonations and nuances of the target language. You’re playing the part of a native speaker.
You can even look for text in, say, Spanish, German, Italian, etc. and read it aloud. A few minutes of this every day will get your vocal instrument tuned up in no time.
Make those earbuds your buddy in the field.
Studying up on a new language is one thing when you’re in the privacy of your own room, with your milk and cookies. It’s a helluva different thing when you’re in the field, interacting with strangers.
In-ear translators can be a great help in decreasing initial language learning anxiety. They can be an early psychological or emotional support that lets you step up to the interaction knowing you’ve got a “wingman.” You’ll know somebody’s got your back and won’t be at a loss for words.
Over time, though, as you realize that talking to native speakers is not a life-or-death proposition, that making language mistakes is okay, and, as you’re able to build genuine friendships with people who speak the language, you’ll become more confident in the process of learning the language. This is what in-ear translators really bring to the table for language learners who are in it for the long haul. They give you a kind of confidence to get through the sticking points.
Interpretive Learning: 3 In-ear Translator Study Buds
iTranslate and Munich-based Bragi team up to bring you The Dash Pro—billed as the world’s first translating earphones. (Bragi produces the earphones, and iTranslate provides the translation software.)
Using “Dash” is really easy. You just need to download both the iTranslate app and Bragi app. Open iTranslate and connect it to your earphones. Pick your target language, and you’re good to go.
Let’s say you want to ask a complete stranger where the supermarket is. You simply ask your question in English, or whatever your native language is, and your phone will give out a translation in the appropriate language. Your Good Samaritan can hear the query through your phone and answer it in their own language. Their answer will then be piped to your earbuds (in English/your native language), and before you know it, you’re jogging to the nearest supermarket.
About 40 languages are supported by The Dash Pro—which, in addition to being an in-ear translator, is also a waterproof exercise/activities tracker and claims to have a 30-hour battery life. So, good news for all language learners who want to take The Dash Pro through its paces. Literally.
The Pilot is more suitable for sit-down conversations, like in a coffee shop. It’s really not for those ask-and-dash-to-the-supermarket scenarios we just mentioned. Maybe you’re in a relationship with someone whose first language is not English or your native language, and you want more opportunities to learn their language. Or you have a language buddy or a language exchange partner. In these cases, the Pilot would be perfect for you.
For the set-up to work, two phones are required. Both phones need to download the Waverly Labs app. Each of you will have an earbud (left or right) and what comes out of each earbud will depend on the languages that you choose.
The Pilot lets you have seamless, sit-down conversations in 15 languages.
These are from Google.
By pressing and holding on Pixel Buds, you can ask them anything—from today’s weather, to who won the Superbowl. You’ll be untethered from your phone, and instead of tinkering around with it, you can talk to it like an assistant.
Now, I know Pixel Buds got a bad rap from tech reviewers—from the price, to the design, to the fact that they don’t do noise cancellation, etc. But I include them here as a nod to Google Translate.
Like I said before, the magic isn’t really in the buds, it’s on the app, and Google Translate does what it does really well. Just considering the sheer number of languages it supports (over 100), the app is really a buddy for today’s language learners. There are written translations, voice translations. You can even take a picture of a word and the app will translate it for you. You can do so many things with it. If you want to genuinely learn a language, then this app is a must for you. (It’s free!)
For sure, the translations provided by these three in-ear gadgets are not perfect. To close this post, let me just say that fluent, technologically facilitated conversations still look to be some years away. But that’s technology for people who don’t want to learn the language.
For genuine language learners, those who can’t wait to actually speak in German, Spanish, Russian for themselves—the technology is here. You don’t have to wait a few more years. It’s already a reality. You can, at this very instant, employ available tools to help you learn the language of your dreams.
So what are you waiting for? Get started!
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