Are we speaking the same language?

With the emergence of new technologies that instantly translate languages, are we arriving at a time and place when we can have meaningful discussions without speaking the same language?

CC-BY-NC-SA by Manar Hussain on Flickr

CC-BY-NC-SA by Manar Hussain on Flickr

I am currently enrolled in a MOOC on research methodology through Coursera. The instructors are from the University of London and the participants are from all over the world. One of the challenges with this course is that people responding to one another in English possess varying degrees of fluency.

It seems to me we might be better off with people posting not in English, but in their own language. There has been real improvement in translation technology in the past couple of years and apps such as Google Translate do a pretty good job of translating across a number of languages. So when enrolling in a MOOC, rather than attempting to translate every discussion into English why not just post in your native language? I would post in English, but you would read my post and comment on it in Portuguese – a classmate reads your post in German and responds in German.

By reading and writing in the language we are most comfortable with, we are more likely to express our thoughts with greater clarity and depth (instead of being distracted with how I might translate my words for you). This puts the onus on the receiver for making meaning from what is said, and the reader can ask for clarification as needed.

Google Translate

Google Translate

The technologies of language translation are not limited to text.  Skype Translator will permit real-time language translation via web conferencing, adding the potential for yet another layer of interactivity for online and open course participants.

Apps like Word Lens by Quest Visual (recently purchased by Google) translate visual images in real-time to text using apps on your iPhone or Android smartphone.

How long before Word Lens and other translator apps are integrated into wearable technologies like smart glasses permitting travelers to walk about in foreign cities seeing the sights and signs translated instantly for them into their own language?

By using these tools in MOOCs where various languages are spoken in the same course, we have much greater potential to increase and improve the quality of our interactions and understandings across cultures and languages.

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