Could instant translation technology revolutionise world HE?

Accurate translation apps could have a ‘major impact’ on academia, some scholars believe, but others unconvinced

October 17, 2017
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Language is often cited as one of the main obstacles to universities’ internationalisation efforts, blamed for everything from the low number of UK students studying abroad to Japan’s lagging behind on numbers of foreign academics and internationally co-authored publications.

So could new technology allow students and academics to transcend language barriers – and therefore transform international higher education?

Earlier this month Google launched Pixel Buds – a new set of wireless earbud headphones that deliver real-time translation between 40 different languages using Google Translate on a Pixel smartphone.

Bragi’s Dash Pro earbuds deliver the same feature using the iTranslate app on an iPhone.

Colin Mitchell, learning technologist at Leeds Beckett University, said that the technology has the potential to benefit scholars and students.

“If the products produced are easy to use, integrated into existing devices and accurate in their output, I could see tools such as these potentially assisting universities with a range of functions, from the translation of induction and teaching materials for individual students, to helping colleagues more easily collaborate on research outputs internationally, a key element of the research excellence framework,” he said.

“As with most of these things it is about users establishing trust in the technology that is key to its success – particularly with something as dynamic as language.”

Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at University College London and director of UCL’s Centre for Global Higher Education, added that good translation systems “would have a major impact on academic work”.

However, while he acknowledged that the on-screen Google Translate function is getting better, he said that he does not “feel comfortable yet about its capacity to handle conceptual language, specialised data and nuance”.

Other academics remained unconvinced that instant translation tools would aid communication between scholars and students across the world.

Philip Altbach, research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that it was “not clear if the new instant translation arrangements will permit the kind of complex discussion that is needed for most academic collaboration”.

“Communication, of course, is more than language – it is the ability to understand another culture – and easy instant translation may in some ways make this more difficult,” he added.

He continued that given the fact that English has become “so entrenched as the global language of science” it is not clear how necessary instant translation would be for academic purposes.

Hamish Coates, deputy director at the Centre for the Assessment of College and Student Development at Tsinghua University, was also sceptical about the technology’s potential value.

“All of the translation apps are helpful in the short run, but in the long run there’s no substitute for learning a new language and culture,” he said.

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