For the past four years I've been learning Czech, and whilst I've undoubtedly made progress in that time, there's been a lingering suspicion that I'll finally master it around the time an automated solution makes knowing a 2nd language redundant.
Whilst technologies such as Google Translate are increasingly powerful, they don't yet offer the kind of real-time support needed to converse fluently with someone in another language. This is where Pilot, a new wearable earpiece being developed by Waverly Labs comes in.
It aims to capture sound using a smart microphone, before noise-cancelling algorithms go to work. The captured words are then fed to the cloud where they are translated and sent back to the user through the earpiece. The team believe that the translation is almost instantaneous.
Suffice to say, there are a number of similar prototypes entering the market, not least of which are Google's Pixel Buds, which launched recently. Whilst the technology is undoubtedly interesting, there remain doubts over it's practical uses (even aside from the numerous benefits derived from learning a second language).
For instance, despite Google translate being functionally very good, it's unlikely that anyone would use it seriously in a professional or academic context. It's use has been confined to picking up a few phrases when you travel somewhere once or twice.
Estonian startup Lingvist aim to help matters by helping us to pick up a new language faster than we otherwise might do. The venture was born whilst founder Mait Müntel was working as a physicist at CERN, and he wanted a quick way to learn French and thus successfully integrate with his French speaking neighbors.
He decided to take a data-driven approach, and fed over 40,000 movies complete with French subtitles into an algorithm that was running on the CERN supercomputers. Through this, he was able to identify the key words and phrases that make up the bulk of French speaking, which in turn enabled him to master around 95% of those words in just a few months.
It's an approach that has thus far been used successfully by around 1 million users who are testing and refining the system as well as learning one of a handful of languages via the app. Indeed, in initial tests, Müntel claims that learners have outperformed peers undertaking traditional classroom based tuition by four times.
The company is soon to launch a number of conversational speaking exercises that they hope will be the first step towards an AI-driven chat service that will allow learners to test both speaking and listening skills. At the moment however, they are working first on pre-prepared conversations that will give them sufficient learning opportunties to advance things further.
The innovative app, which works across both mobile and computers, has been recognized by additional private investment, most recently from global Internet services company Rakuten – to the tune of €7.2 million.
Services such as that being developed by Lingvist and Waverly Labs are unlikely to reduce the importance of learning foreign languages in the short-term, but both offer an interesting glimpse into how our attempts to communicate more effectively are being supported.