All “Trekkies” know that Captain Kirk and his crew from the “Starship Enterprise” never left the ship without their trusty universal translators to aid in possible communication with any and all alien life forms they might have encountered on other planets. But what was once a popular sci-fi TV series is now a reality (almost). Microsoft and a few other private inventors have created several devices that can simultaneously translate language conversations from language to another.
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key.
Excerpt: Conquering babel: Simultaneous translation by computer is getting closer The Economist
“In“Star Trek”, a television series of the 1960s, no matter how far across the universe the Starship Enterprise travelled, any aliens it encountered would converse in fluent Californian English. It was explained that Captain Kirk and his crew wore tiny, computerised Universal Translators that could scan alien brainwaves and simultaneously convert their concepts into appropriate English words. Science fiction, of course. But the best sci-fi has a habit of presaging fact. Many believe the flip-open communicators also seen in that first “Star Trek” series inspired the design of clamshell mobile phones.
And, on a more sinister note, several armies and military-equipment firms are working on high-energy laser weapons that bear a striking resemblance to phasers. How long, then, before automatic simultaneous translation becomes the norm, and all those tedious language lessons at school are declared redundant?
Not, perhaps, as long as language teachers, interpreters and others who make their living from mutual incomprehension might like.
A series of announcements over the past few months from sources as varied as mighty Microsoft and string-and-sealing-wax private inventors suggest that workable, if not yet perfect, simultaneous-translation devices are now close at hand.
Over the summer, Will Powell, an inventor in London, demonstrated a system that translates both sides of a conversation between English and Spanish speakers—f they are patient, and speak slowly. Each interlocutor wears a hands-free headset linked to a mobile phone, and sports special goggles that display the translated text like subtitles in a foreign film.
In November, NTT DoCoMo, the largest mobile-phone operator in Japan, introduced a service that translates phone calls between Japanese and English, Chinese or Korean.
Each party speaks consecutively, with the firm’s computers eavesdropping and translating his words in a matter of seconds. The result is then spoken in a man’s or woman’s voice, as appropriate.
Though the three systems are quite different, each faces the same problems.
The first challenge is to recognise and digitise speech. In the past, speech-recognition software has parsed what is being said into its constituent sounds, known as phonemes. There are around 25 of these in Mandarin, 40 in English and over 100 in some African languages… Just as important is converting what has been learned not only into foreign words (hard enough, given the ambiguities of meaning which all languages display, and the fact that some concepts are simply untranslatable), but into foreign sentences…
So even when the English words in a sentence are known for certain, computerised language services may produce stilted or humorously inaccurate translations…In the real world, people talk over one another, use slang or chat on noisy streets, all of which can foil even the best translation system. But though it may be a few more years before “Star Trek” style conversations become commonplace, universal translators still look set to beat phasers, transporter beams and warp drives in moving from science fiction into reality.”
Level: Intermediate -Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, speaking and listening. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handouts (from this lesson) access to news article, and video.
Objective: Students will read the article, learn new vocabulary, and improve their reading comprehension. At the end of the lesson students will demonstrate their understanding of the material through discussions, and writing. The integrated language skills practiced will be reading, writing, speaking and listening.
I. Pre-Reading Tasks
Analyzing headings and photos
Directions: Ask students to read the title of the post, and of the actual article they are about to read. Then, have them examine the photos. Based on these sources, ask students to create a list of words and ideas that they think might be related to this article.
II. While Reading Tasks
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary or thesaurus for assistance. Have students write sentences using each word.
- Captain Kirk and his crew wore tiny, computerized Universal Translators that could scan alien brainwaves…
- …military-equipment firms are working on high-energy laser weapons that bear a striking resemblance to phasers.
- …and all those tedious language lessons at school are declared redundant.
- Each interlocutor wears a hands-free headset linked to a mobile phone…
- Each party speaks consecutively, with the firm’s computers eavesdropping and translating his words…
- Microsoft’s contribution is perhaps the most beguiling.
- In the past, speech-recognition software has parsed what is being said into its constituent sounds, known as phonemes.
- At the moment, the need for the headsets, cloud services and interveninglaptop means Mr Powell’s simultaneous system is still very much a prototype.
- But though it may be a few more years before “Star Trek” style conversations become commonplace universal translators still look set to beat phasers…
- Reading Comprehension
True / False
Directions: The following statements were taken from the article. If a statement is true, students write (T) if a statement is false they write (F) and provide the correct answer from the article.
- Star Trek” was a television series in the 1960s…
- Captain Kirk and his crew wore tiny, computerized Universal Translators.
- Will Powell was an actor on the series in London…
- Each interlocutor wore a hands-free headset linked to a mobile phone, and special sports goggles.
- The special goggles displayed translated ideas like subtitles in a foreign film.
- NTT DoCoMo, is the largest video game operator in Japan.
- When Rick Rashid, chief research officer at Microsoft, spoke in English at a conference in Tianjin in October, his peroration was translated live into Mandarin.
- According to the article, the three systems are quite different, and each faces different problems.
- Microsoft’s researchers claim that their deep-neural-network translator makes at least a third fewer errors than traditional systems.
- Recognizing speech is only the first part of translation. Just as important is converting what has been learned into foreign words and into foreign sentences.
• Grammar Focus
Using Adjectives to Describe Photos
Directions: Place students in groups and have the study the photos from this lesson. Then have each group choose one or two photos and write a short description of what they see using adjectives. Students aretoidentify the adjectives words they used. After, have each group share their descriptions with the class.
III. Post Reading Tasks
• Reading Comprehension Check
Directions: Have students use the WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.
Who or What is the article about?
Where does the action/event take place?
When does the action/event take place?
Why did the action/event occur?
How did the action/event occur?
Directions: Place students in groups and have them answer the following questions. After, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the discussion topics.
1. Discuss some situations where a universal translator might be helpful?
2. Which groups of people would most likely use a universal translator? (E.g., old, young, high school or college students, professional). Provide reasons to support your answers.
3. Would you buy and use a universal translator? Explain your purpose for using one.
IV. Listening Activity
Video Clip: Speech Recognition Breakthrough for the Spoken,Translated Word by MicrosoftResearch.
Introduction: Published on Nov 8, 2012-
“Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid demonstrates a speech recognition breakthrough via machine translation that converts his spoken English words into computer-generated Chinese language. The breakthrough is patterned after deep neural networks and significantly reduces errors in spoken as well as written translation.”
Listening for New Vocabulary or New Terms
Directions: Here is a list of words and phrases from the video. Have students find the meanings before they listen to the video. As students listen, they are to check off the words and phrases as they hear them.
Words:interfaces, waveform, fragile, statistical, data, robust, significant, arbitrary.
• While Listening Tasks
Note to teachers: This video begins to show subtitles at about 3:15.
True /False statements
Directions: Review the statements with students before the watching the video. As students listen to the video if a statement is true they mark it T if the statement is false they mark it F and provide the correct answer.
- One of the most natural interfaces for people is human speech.
- For the last 45 years computer scientists have been trying to find a way to understand and recognize human speech.
- In the late 1980s there was a major change in the way people decided to do speech recognition.
- This was work being done at Carnegie Hall University.
- Speech recognition systems have become marginally better than they used to be.
- They still make a lot of mistakes.
- So for example in Japan when iI call my bank, I’m talking to a computer.
- If necessary the computer can connect me to a real person if I have a significant issue that I want to discuss.
- I’m sure you’ve heard of Apple’s Siri product which answers complex questions.
- MicroSoft Connect has a robust speech interface that allows you to control the interface.
• Post-Listening Tasks
Discuss why a universal translator is a good (bad) idea in general.
After listening to this video what have you learned about the universal translator?
Did you agree with everything the speaker said? Discuss which comments you agreed with and which ones you tended not to agree with. Explain why.
With your group members, make up some questions that you would like to ask the speaker.
V. GROUP PROJECTS
Role Play:Students can role play their assignments. This will force a higher level of thinking skills as student have to dramatize their interpretations for the class.
Visual Creations: Students can create pictures, collages, or models, to demonstrate their understanding of a universal translator.
Comic Strips: Using the pictures from the article as a guide students can create a comic strip centered around the topic universal translators.
Here are two very useful interactive online sites that provide students with guidelines for creating their own comic strips!
Comic Creator: Read-Write-Think Educational site “The Comic Creator invites students to compose their own comic strips for a variety of contexts (prewriting, pre- and postreading activities, response to literature, and so on).”
ArtsEdge “Weave words and pictures together in a comic strip format to convey nonfiction information.”