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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

How tech is helping us overcome the barrier of language

David Colburn
Posted 2/2/22

When I graduated from high school in 1976, I did so without having taken a foreign language. German and Spanish were available but not required, and there were other electives, like economics, that …

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How tech is helping us overcome the barrier of language


When I graduated from high school in 1976, I did so without having taken a foreign language. German and Spanish were available but not required, and there were other electives, like economics, that were more appealing and relevant.
Having just completed a year as an intern at the local weekly newspaper, journalism was high on my list of career possibilities as I looked toward college. Aside from the fact that my father had earned his bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Kansas, the William Allen White School of Journalism there was one of the best in the country, so it was a given I would be going there.
An old family friend and law professor there, Francis Heller, volunteered to be my academic advisor starting out. Among his many talents, Francis, a native of Austria, spoke five foreign languages fluently, including Mandarin Chinese. With images of President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China still fresh in everyone’s minds, Francis noted that with a journalism degree and fluency in Chinese I could virtually write my own ticket for a job with any major news service straight out of college. The idea was incredibly appealing, so I signed up for Chinese 101.
I learned that Mandarin Chinese was a tonal language and that if you used the wrong tone when trying to say “mother” you were saying “horse” instead. And that’s about all I learned. Two weeks into the course, I was already a week behind.
The third week I met with my professor to review the results of a test we’d all taken that was supposed to gauge our ability to learn a foreign language. I had tested weak or very weak in three of the five prerequisite underlying skills, he said, followed by this: “I advise you to drop my class IMMEDIATELY.” I couldn’t get over to the registrar’s office fast enough to fill out the drop slip.
When I moved to Long Beach, Calif., in 2007, I knew that a significant percentage of the families in my Head Start program were Spanish-speaking, so I decided to give Spanish a try. I bought a Rosetta Stone learning system. I listened almost exclusively to Spanish-language music stations. I tried at times to have very, very simple conversations with some staff and parents. To put it bluntly, it might as well have been Chinese.
I’ve always felt bad that I didn’t learn a foreign language, but I am glad I’ve lived long enough for technology to provide a workaround for that.
I traveled abroad for the first time in my life in 2019, including stops in Mumbai, India and the country of Sri Lanka. I did not speak a word of Marathi or Sinhalese, but I was not concerned about communicating at a basic level at all because I had a smartphone loaded with relevant language apps that also gave me access to Google Translate. I actually used them very little because everywhere I went there always seemed to be one of the locals who spoke English. I found that somewhat embarrassing, actually, encountering so many people who could speak my language when I could not speak theirs.
This past week I spent a great deal of time learning what I could about the Arrowhead 135 Ultramarthon that was going on this Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. As I reviewed the list of registrants, one name in particular caught my attention, Marcio Villar of Brazil. This being the first time the race has been run since I moved here two years ago, I didn’t realize there would be competitors from other countries. I Googled him and was fascinated by what I found. I decided I wanted to interview him. I also discovered in a fellow competitor’s blog that Marcio didn’t speak English. No English? No problem.
Step one was connecting with him through WhatsApp. I pulled up WhatsApp on my computer and scanned the QR code to connect it with my phone. In a second window I pulled up Google Translate. As I typed in English, the Portuguese translation appeared beside it. Just had to copy that and paste it into WhatsApp, and I was off and running. When he responded in Portuguese, I copied that into Google Translate to read it. Going back and forth like that, we had a good introductory chat and set up the interview for Sunday.
When I stepped into his hotel room we quickly got handshakes and hellos out of the way and reached for our smartphones. I hadn’t used Google Translate since my trip, and he rarely used it, so the first five minutes or so were rather awkward as we fumbled around with the technology. But once we figured out just how close we should be holding our phones as we spoke into them and focused on being more precise in our articulation, we settled into an easy rhythm of exchange. It seemed odd, at first, hearing the same Google Translate voice for both of us, but staying with that was better than wasting time trying to figure out how to change voices.
Also different was how our exchange progressed visually. As the conversation went along, we looked more at each other as a translation was playing, and our facial gestures and nods became more animated, as if to add back the nonverbal elements left out by Google Translate.
We talked for about 40 minutes, and I could have talked with him like that all day. He expressed the same sentiment. We ended not with a handshake but with a hearty hug. The connection we’d made was more than the technology, but it would not have happened without it. Language need not be a barrier anymore.


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