This week Skype opened up registrations for its upcoming Skype Translator feature which translates speech in real time and displays the translation as captions on the video call. Skype itself markets the feature as a replacement for language learning, albeit as a former language coach I am actually pretty excited about the technology’s potential for language teaching.
Back in the days I always made the point that Skype is all you need as a language instructor. Forget virtual classrooms, interactive whiteboards and all that often unreliable software. Using Skype forces both student and teacher to focus on the essentials and its still best-in-class voice quality makes it perfect for language instruction.
Along with the mentioned voice quality the chat function plays a major role when teaching a language. As a tutor you are using it (or should be using it) constantly as a note book, providing links, explaining vocabulary and giving written translations in addition to the pronunciation.
With Skype Translator language tutors will now be able to even go a step further and offer total immersion, a form of language teaching I personally was never a huge fan of. The idea of total immersion is to teach a student in the target language from day one by only speaking with him or her in let’s say English. With Skype Translator, this concept would make more sense as the student will get a translation right away.
Now I know, people shouldn’t use subtitles to learn a language when watching movies but I believe this form of teaching will prove to become hugely popular. The question being of course whether Microsoft is going to licence its technology one day or if language learning startups will be forced to use Skype as their VoIP client. And one doesn’t have to be a visionary to predict that Google will eventually come up with a similar offering for Google Hangouts as they have the technology to integrate in the form of Instant Translate already.
Skype Translator will also mean that students will have an even broader choice of global teachers to choose from. Today it is necessary that the instructor also speaks the native language of the student, at least in the lower levels. With instant speech translation and transcription this won’t necessarily be the case anymore, opening up a far bigger pool of teachers (and students) to choose from.