Many people believe that artificial intelligence (AI) translators are surpassing human translators in their ability to accurately translate foreign languages. With the growing popularity of home voice recognition systems like Alexa and apps such as Google Translate, it’s easy to see why.

The technology is advancing rapidly. This year a Nigerian man developed the world’s first artificial intelligence portal that can translate over 2,000 African languages. This incredible achievement is helping overcome the language barrier in Africa and the rest of the world.

But are AI translators really superior to human translators? And does this mean you should give up your English classes?

Read on to find out exactly what AI translators do, how they can benefit you and what it really means for the future of language learning.


What are AI translators?

AI translators are digital tools that use advanced artificial intelligence to not only translate the words that are written or spoken, but also to translate the meaning (and sometimes sentiment) of the message. This results in greater accuracy and fewer misunderstandings than when using simple machine translation.

Instead of asking your teacher what a word or phrase means, these days you can easily find an app which automatically translates a foreign language to your mother tongue.

Virtual assistants like Siri use language recognition software, as do language learning apps like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone. This software works by using speech recognition algorithms to identify the spoken language. It then analyzes the sound to turn it into text.

Many big companies these days have started using artificial intelligence in their language services – even Facebook has a function for translation. This relies on text-to-text translation which converts a word, phrase or even a paragraph into another language.


How are AI translators advancing?

Digital translators are getting better and better. AI has advanced so much thanks to the creation of neural machine translation or NMT. This technology works really well because of its ability to manage large amounts of data, which means companies like Google can offer higher quality results. Good news! This means you’re less likely to have those embarrassing mistranslation moments.


What AI translator technology is available?

One of the biggest advancements is with Google Translate, which now has a camera function that instantly translates text from one language to another. You just hover your phone over a word, and Google does the rest like magic!

AI voice recognition software has also improved because it now has the ability to talk back to you. It is often criticised, however, for lacking natural tone. This is where Google has the edge . They have invented a way of using “voiceprints” to keep the original tone of voice of the speaker. Imagine a robot being able to show your emotions! You can listen to the differences in sound here.

Google are not the only ones pioneering new translation technology. Microsoft have created Microsoft LUIS which is often used in chatbots to communicate with users in natural language. They’ve also developed their own app which translates street signs. The biggest advantage to this app is that you can use it offline. Could this be the end of frantically asking for directions when you’re abroad?

There’s also IBM’s Watson – a supercomputer which is able to answer questions at the same rate as a high-functioning human. In 2011 Watson competed on the quiz show Jeopardy and managed to win the first prize place of $1 million dollars.

Finally, we’re seeing more and more in-ear devices from companies like Waverly Labs. All you have to do is put in the earpiece and it translates conversations in real-time so you can have actual conversations in two languages. It’s perfect for doing business or making international friends!


How can AI translators help you?

AI has huge amounts of potential when it comes to language learning. One important benefit for language students is that it makes everything a bit quicker. By allowing your phone or tablet to do certain tasks, it can expand learning in the classroom whilst giving you the time to focus on other things. Before you had to search laboriously in a dictionary for a word. Now you can just use an app and it will do all the hard work for you.

How can AI translators help you? | AI translators: the future of language learning? | Oxford House Barcelona

AI translators can also make travelling a whole lot easier, especially if you are visiting somewhere like China where not only is the language different, but the alphabet is too! These apps and services can be a saviour when speaking to locals or ordering something to eat in a restaurant. You can simply hold your phone over a menu to translate the dishes, and communicate with the waitress through your microphone.

Check out the video below to see how it works. As you can see it’s not perfect but it’s definitely better than nothing:



Are there any disadvantages to AI translators?

The answer is yes, unfortunately. Despite the accuracy of many AI translators, the majority are not as good as people believe. The NMT is still a relatively new method. It requires a lot of guesswork, experimentation and lots of collection of data.

AI translators can also be unreliable. These kinds of apps often miss words or phrases and struggle to translate colloquialisms and idioms, which makes everyday speech in films and music very difficult to translate. Unfortunately, this means it’s not at the stage where Google Translate can do your English homework for you – at least not without your teacher noticing. Sorry!

Another downside is the lack of real-world common sense. AI translators are programmed to translate text without any real context – they don’t understand the emotional and cultural impact of language. Sarcasm and irony are often lost. And they can be misinterpreted or even offensive at times.


So what is the future of AI translators in language learning?

AI translation tools are great for self-study and for use as classroom aids, but a lot of the time the translations they produce need to be checked by a real person as they sometimes make obvious mistakes.

They also lack the human element; while you’re travelling abroad they can be very useful in emergency situations – for example when you need to look up a word or order something from the pharmacy. But it’s not easy to build relationships and survive using only digital translators using a text or voice translator.

While we’ve always had human translators, we don’t use them in place of our educators. To help build relationships we need teachers; we need them to help us learn the language, not just understand it. They help guide us and give us the cultural background in a way that a computer cannot.

As Doctor Netaya Lotze says – “Artificial intelligence is on the rise…However, some key criteria still need to be met before it can serve as a substitute for a real-life language teacher: spontaneity, creativity and shared knowledge.”

Our advice? Don’t forget about your English classes yet, but make sure you have your phone on hand for those difficult moments, just in case.

We have some wonderful teachers at Oxford House! Take a look at the classes we offer.

Glossary for Language Learners


Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.

Surpassing (v): to be better than.

Language barrier (n): a difficulty in communication because of language difference.

Mother Tongue (n): native language.

Hover (v): to hang in the air.

Have the edge (exp): to be slightly better than something else.

Pioneering (adj): using methods that are new and never been done before.

Huge (adj): very big.

Saviour (n): something that saves you.

Guesswork (n): the process of making a guess.

Unreliable (adj): not to be trusted.

Downside (n) : a disadvantage.


v = verb

n = noun

exp = expression

adj = adjective

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