Microsoft is killing languages with Skype Translator (and so is Google Conversation Mode)

How can tech companies aid the survival of minority languages?
How can tech companies aid the survival of minority languages?

Microsoft is killing language diversity—but they’re not the only high-tech culprit. Google is doing the same thing. Both of them are developing real-time translating apps, where people can speak and hear their own language as they converse with someone speaking a different language. These tech giants are the new world empires, following neatly in the footsteps of empires, from the Babylonians to the British, who initiated language-loss millennia ago.

Sounds contradictory, no? How could an app that allows people to speak and be understood in their own language be detrimental to language variety?
How can tech companies help?

Week 27 of Loving Somali: Bliu Bliu and comprehensible input

Artificial intelligence solves an intermediate learning problem
Artificial intelligence solves an intermediate learning problem

My learning Somali hits some difficult spots, similar to when I was learning Farsi. The problem is intermediate language learning. I’ve discussed this with multiple polyglots and language-learning companies. I even posted about it here, here, and here. What do I do when I have learned most of the grammar and acquired a decent amount of vocabulary, but cannot understand basic articles or podcasts aimed at native speakers? This week, I discovered a fantastic way out: Bliu Bliu. And they even work with Somali!

See what I learned

Do robots love language? Bias and Google Translate

Translate Tongan? You'll have to ask him--Google Translate can't help.
Translate Tongan? You’ll have to ask him–Google Translate can’t help.

I tend not to follow the mainstream. I study languages that others don’t, and I’ll often gravitate towards marginal dialects when I can. When I speak Arabic, I try to throw in a little Moroccan when I can. Speaking Russian, I might add a little bit of a Ukrainian accent. Right now, I’m learning Swiss German, which I’m afraid will irritate my standard German-speaking friends.

Google Translate follows the mainstream. It is a tool developed by a savvy business filling a commercial need. People who have and spend money need an application to conduct their business more easily. I addressed the relative value of languages in an earlier post.

Unfortunately, Google Translate reflects the mainstream. It offers the languages of the powerful, and translates using the language of the status quo without respect for what is good or right independent of how things are done. For using language the way most powerful people do, Google Translate works well; those of us who seek out the margins and buck the trend of “standard” speech see clear limitations in the language and gender bias of our world reflected in this software.

Which languages are most important?

I don’t know how I missed it, but I just saw this week that Google Translate expanded into African languages a few months ago.

80 languages at Google Translate
80 languages at Google Translate

You can see that now it includes five African languages: Somali (how did I miss that?!) and Zulu, plus the three most widely-spoken languages of Nigeria (Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa). The only other African languages offered previously were Swahili and Afrikaans from 2009.

The service follows the power structure of the Internet. You can see the stages of growth of the software in this article. Here is the general process of expansion. The first languages were all EU languages, and quickly were accompanied by ones from East Asia. After Arabic and Russian appeared, eastern European and Southeast Asian languages came next. Other Southeast Asian and Central Asian languages arrived, until the first American (Hatian Creole) and African languages were incorporated (including Afrikaans, which some may call a European language). Even though Hindi was one of the earlier languages, other Indian languages surprisingly only came at a late stage–after Latin!–and, finally, in the last stage, a group of African languages and the first Oceanic language, Maori, made it in. No indigenous languages of North or South America are yet to be represented.

I don’t believe Google would have a policy to include or exclude languages. As a successful business, they would naturally gravitate to languages that would bring the most sets of eyes to their site. Also, when they figured out a language so they could add it, adding a closely-related language wouldn’t take much additional effort. For example, adding Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian in the same release makes sense, and once Spanish is well-established, Catalan probably takes minimal effort.

Their stages of development reflect a reality of the internet and commercial value of languages. Europe and East Asia are the most important, then Asia and Southeast Asia, and finally Africa. The indigenous peoples of Oceania and the Americas are insignificant. I noticed some odd anomalies. Hundreds of millions of Indians’ mother tongues were left till quite late. I think there’s an assumption that Indians can just use English. At the same time, Welsh or Irish were added much earlier, in spite of very few monolingual speakers. For some reason, Western European languages received preference that Indian languages did not. I don’t think this is racism, however; Google reflects an economic reality in its amoral inequality of wealth and poverty.

Is Google Translate sexist?

At one time, some people accused Google Translate of gender bias. They noted that phrases that included ambiguous gender sometimes came back with a gender. Some people were scandalized because translations reflected an unwanted stereotype. For example, this article describes gender bias manifested in German. In German, Lehrer can mean a man or woman teacher, while Lehrerin is a woman teacher. I translated “physics teacher” and “math teacher” and they both used Lehrer, while “French teacher” and “cooking teacher” translate with Lehrerin, imposing a gender bias of certain areas of specialization.

I ran another experiment. In Arabic, like many other languages, there is no “it,” so one uses a masculine or feminine pronoun based on the grammatical gender of the noun. So “door” is “he,” while “car” is “she,” for example. I translated, “He fixed the car” into Arabic, and translated it back, and got the same, “He fixed the car.” When I translated, “She fixed the car” into Arabic and back, Google served up, “It fixed the car.” Maybe it is more easily imaginable that a wrench would fix a car than a woman would.

These results reflect the methodology of the translation, which is to draw from a large corpus of incidents. The author of this article interviewed an engineer working on the software who said, “Statistical patterns were used to allow the tool to determine what gender was being referred to. Should the text include the word “dice”, which is Spanish for “says”, the algorithm will not only assess the frequency that this is historically used to refer to a male or female speaker, but also the other words in the inputted text.” The software reflects how the phrase is used. It is a robot reflecting the real use of human language with stereotypes, biases, and all.

We can’t really blame the bias of the software–we can only blame our own biases. The software has no ability to understand the pragmatics of the situation. Modern Hebrew reflects the gender of the subject in present verbs. When I translated, “I am nursing the baby” or “I am giving birth,” the gender was masculine. It seems that when there is little evidence, the software defaults to masculine, even if it can’t make sense in real life. When a real bias comes out of the language, the software presents that as what you, as a “typical” speaker of the langauge, were “probably” getting at. Simply put, people talk more about women as French teachers than as physics teachers in German. Google Translate reflects our world.

Our tool in our world

I love all languages. I think we can use language to lift people up. We don’t have to marginalize languages or individuals with what and how we speak.

But our world is what it is: biased. You can make more ad revenue with some languages than with others. We tend to find fewer women working in math and science than with children. Google reflects this right back at us.

Languages rise and fall and adapt more quickly than our software. Humans can see trends coming that computers can’t. People feel right about speaking one way instead of another.

I buck the trend, though. I want to speak languages that are not money-makers. I want to find ways to focus on the marginalized rather than keep them on the margins. If I want to change the status quo, I can’t rely on Google Translate. I have to learn to speak for myself, with my own words.

Be sure to “Like” if you support the margins, those people and languages who don’t follow the trend.

Photo credit: Light Knight / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Kindness, grace–and the humiliating love of language

It's a skill to respond kindly when you have pie on your face
It’s a skill to respond kindly when you have pie on your face

I found that I have a thick skin at work. Sometimes people make fun of me behind my back, sometimes to my face. I found that I have a rare–if not unique–ability to ignore them. When other people might speak against me, I can pretend I didn’t hear the negative talk. As a result, I can focus on the future and on the positive, to be sure that we can keep doing what must be done. The tough situations I went through learning languages gifted me with this ability.

Recently I was moved by a Spanish-learner‘s post on Google+. She described how she worked with native Spanish-speakers who would make fun of her when she spoke Spanish. She was discouraged. I tried my best to comfort her by noting that I had been made fun of in multiple languages over a span of almost 25 years, on more occasions than I can count. Once I wrote this, I realized I had a rare experience–even a privilege!–that had strengthened me as a human being.

Public humiliation in Ukraine

For example, when I lived in Ukraine, a classmate humiliated me in public. I was the only American in the class, and one of only two male students. Jealousy had arisen in the class among some of the girls. I had gone to a play with one of them, Alyona, and another, Natasha, a leader in the class, was frustrated with me. When Natasha and I were taking the tram together to class (she lived close to my neighborhood), she started making fun of me and humiliating me. Since I my Russian was still pretty basic at the time, I had a hard time understanding how Natasha was humiliating me and I was defenseless. The scene was so mean, that a middle-aged woman sitting next to us got involved, telling Natasha to cut it out; “How can you talk to him that way? He’s a foreigner!” she said. I was grateful to that woman, as I had no way to defend myself.

When we returned to school, I worked out in my head some sort of retort. I had to tell Natasha that my friends do not speak to me this way, so she could choose to be my friend or not. Not very subtle–it took great efforts to say even that clearly–but she got the message.

Mockery in Morocco

When I lived in Morocco, I had to deal with similar situations. A friend of mine introduced me to a couple of girls he thought I might like. My friend kept teasing me, trying to put me on the spot, saying in Arabic right in front of these girls, “Do you like her? You can’t tell her you don’t like her! Do you like her friend better?” I tried to take the pressure off by saying, ‘jbatni “I like her fine.” Unfortunately, I transposed the first root letter to the end and said, jb’atni “I’ve had enough.” (I only realized this mistake a long time later.) They laughed so hard: “Really? You’ve had enough already?” I didn’t know why that was so funny, but tried to smile. I was hoping to dig myself out of the humiliating situation, but I managed to dig myself in deeper.

When I would have dinner with my host family, sometimes they would just make fun of me. Moroccans laugh at each other more than Americans do, so I had to learn to live with it. Simple banter, though, was over my head. I didn’t know what they were saying. I couldn’t be a good sport because I didn’t know what to say back. I had to learn to look like a good sport, even if I was angry, frustrated, exhausted, or confused.

Love in the International House of Pain

These are only two examples. At other occasions, Russians openly mocked my American accent. Moroccan friends mimicked the way I emphasized certain words. French girls talked at me fast and furious, purposely trying to overwhelm me. I had to choose between smiling blankly and walking away. When I was living in another country, though, I often had nowhere to walk away to. On occasion I tried to smack someone, but that never helped the situation; I just looked crazy.

By brute force, I learned how to overlook people’s unkind actions. I could get over blows to my ego without having to strike back. I’m quick to retort in English, but I had to learn a different approach. I had to take my lumps–deserved or not–with both hands tied behind my back. Even though my patience did not come from virtue, but only from trying to keep from being humiliated less, I at least had to act as if I was virtuous. I saw what patience looked like; I had to be what patience looked like. Even if I was patient out of necessity, practice made it a skill that I could later use when needed.

This humiliating language-love taught me patience. I can endure people’s unkindness towards me. These people also taught me how to show kindness to people even when they’re cruel. When people speak this way towards me, I can choose to smile and not retaliate. Maybe even more importantly, I know what it feels like to be an outsider who has to endure humiliation. Language love taught me a new kindness.

Have you been humiliated learning a language?  What did you learn from it?

Photo credit: Viewminder / / CC BY-NC-ND

Four questions about language-learning, solved here

Get over problems by focusing on the basics
Get over problems by focusing on the basics

I wanted to get back to basics this week.  I would like to say that the following are the most common questions and complaints that I hear from people when they ask me.  I will be honest and say that these are from ME; I keep asking myself these questions.  So here is the advice that I most often give myself.  Maybe it will help you, too.  I’m lucky that I keep having a lot of great experiences that help me when motivation flags.  I’m sure that you will soon have some great anecdotes to help motivate you.  Languages are not hard if I focus on a reasonable amount of time to work each day, if I talk to people, and if I use methods that are fun and helpful.

Learning a language is hard!

Speaking in one’s native language is almost as unconscious as breathing.  Speaking in another language looks like working calculus on a unicycle–with a time limit.


Always remember that 4-year-olds can speak their native language, but it takes years of labor, interactions, encouragement, and adorable mistakes.  I’ve found that as soon as I’m ready to just try, I am constantly making incremental improvement.  I always keep in mind that it takes a child 4 years to speak like a 4-year-old: that keeps my progress in perspective.

What method should I use?

With so many methods of learning out there, I’ll have to do tons of research.  Many of them cost so much money that buying the wrong one would really set me back.


Start with Google, and search for “learn (language name).”  Helpful information will come up right away.  For example, when I google (learn Tamil), the first five sites would take me several weeks to get through, if I wanted to spend some time every day– everything from writing the alphabet to basic dialogues (written and audio) and intermediate grammar.  After you find out what you like and dislike among the free material, you can start looking for paid material.

How can I talk to somebody?

My first problem might be I don’t know anyone who speaks the language I’m learning.  My second problem might be I know someone who speaks it, but I’m embarrassed to torture this person by making them listen to my terrible speech.  I mean, I can barely say, “Hello“!

Solution to first:

There are two places to look for speakers.  One is in real space.  “Ethnic” shops and festivals cater to people who likely speak your language.  And if you go, you already demonstrate your open curiosity to another culture, so you will make a good first impression just by showing up.  Try out your language as much as you can.  Make sure you say “hello” in that language or “Do you speak (your langauge)?” at every opportunity.

Another place to look is in cyberspace.  I found the site to be invaluable in finding speakers to talk to over Skype.  But speakers of every language are all over the net, if you look for them.  Many of them want to learn English, so language trades are easy to set up so everyone wins.

Solution to second:

Most people enjoy it when others are learning their language.  I was learning Russian in school in the 80s.  The first time I met a real Russian, the Russian conversation didn’t last past, “How are you?”  The man very kindly made me recite the days of the week, and it was really helpful for me.  I wasn’t putting him out; while he was relaxing in the park, he enjoyed teaching me–just some young guy–the days of the week.  I began only knowing “hello,” and left knowing the days of the week really well.  Any interaction will surely teach me something–and will be a pleasure for the other person.

I don’t have time!

With work, friends, family, and working around the house, I can’t spend tons of time on a language.  Languages take years to learn and I’m just making it through the day.


Work 15 minutes per day, 5-6 days per week.  You will make progress.  You don’t have to memorize vocabulary and grammar all the time.  You can Skype or IM with speakers of your language on-line, or you can watch a TV show or listen to a podcast.  If you hear a word a lot, look it up, or ask your real space or cyberspace friends what the word means.  Writing is helpful, too.  For example, I write up dialogues of what I want to talk about in Somali.  Then I ask my Somali friends over lunch at work how to translate some of the lines.  Every now and then, I read through a dialogue for 5 minutes to learn the phrases better.  You can also write essays and get corrections from native-speaker friends.

Overall goals

I would set up some large-scale goals of what you want to learn just to keep your overall aims clear.  Write them down.  You can make goals for how much vocabulary you want to learn, how many essays you want to write, how many times a month you want to venture to a local center for your language.  Focus on methods that are enjoyable and fruitful.  Do your best to keep up with your goals, but remember that steady progress is the ultimate goal.  If you continue with 15 minutes per day you will make progress.

What are your greatest roadblocks to learning languages?  How do you stay motivated?  Do you have any cool stories that help keep you motivated?

Photo credit: illuminaut / / CC BY-NC-SA