All posts in “Languages”

Google brings offline neural machine translations for 59 languages to its Translate app

Currently, when the Google Translate apps for iOS and Android has access to the internet, its translations are far superior to those it produces when it’s offline. That’s because the offline translations are phrase-based, meaning they use an older machine translation technique than the machine learning-powered systems in the cloud that the app has access to when it’s online. But that’s changing today. Google is now rolling out offline Neural Machine Translation (NMT) support for 59 languages in the Translate apps.

Today, only a small number of users will see the updated offline translations, but it will roll out to all users within the next few weeks.

The list of supported languages consists of a wide range of languages. Because I don’t want to play favorites, here is the full list: Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Belarusian, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Estonian, Filipino, Finnish, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Greek, Gujarati, Haitian, Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Jannada, Korean, Lavtian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Malay, Maltese, Marathi, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese and Welsh.

In the past, running these deep learning models on a mobile device wasn’t really an option since mobile phones didn’t have the right hardware to efficiently run them. Now, thanks to both advances in hardware and software, that’s less of an issue and Google, Microsoft and others have also found ways to compress these models to a manageable size. In Google’s case, that’s about 30 to 40 megabytes per language.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft also announced a similar feature for its Translator app earlier this year. It uses a very similar technique but for the time being, it only supports about a dozen languages.

Learn Spanish with this innovative podcast

If you’ve ever tried to learn a language, you’ll know how important listening can be. 

That’s why Duolingo has launched the Duolingo Spanish Podcast, for English speakers who are learning Spanish. The first episode is available for free on Duolingo’s website, iTunes, Google Play Music, Spotify, and Stitcher. New episodes will roll out every Thursday. 

Each 15-minute episode is a narrative nonfiction story, similar to an episode of This American Life. Though they take place all around the world, the episodes feature Latinx characters, and discuss Latinx culture. 

The podcast is hosted by Martina Castro, co-founder of NPR’s Spanish language podcast Radio Ambulante. She is also the founder and CEO of Adonde Media, a bilingual podcast production company. 

Castro narrates the stories slowly in clear, intermediate-level Spanish. A paragraph is read in Spanish first, followed by an English translation, with segments clocking in at about a minute long. 

The English translations make it easy to check how much of the preceding segment you understood. They can also pull you back into the story if you got lost, or zoned out, during the Spanish section. 

Don’t expect the monotonous listening exercises from your high school Spanish class (or those you might hear on the Duolingo app itself). The stories are interesting, unnerving, heartwarming, and a unique portrait of Latinx culture.

Having taken four years of high school Spanish many years ago, I was able to get the gist of each section if I focused hard (though the English translations were certainly helpful). That said, you’ll want to listen at a time when you can focus — my intermediate-speaker’s brain had a lot of trouble translating if it was also doing something else. 

The first episode features the story of Rodrigo Soberanes, a Mexican journalist, who builds a friendship with a disgraced soccer player and makes a documentary about it. 

Upcoming segments will document a Chilean journalist who unexpectedly meets her future (Chilean) husband on a trip to China, and a woman’s journey to build a life in Buenos Aires after her boyfriend (whom she moved there for) leaves her.  

Duolingo told Mashable that it hopes the podcast will motivate intermediate and advanced Spanish learners to keep up with their studies throughout their daily, while communing, exercising, etc. (But as I said, for speakers as inexperienced as me, this is probably wistful thinking). 

It also hopes users who have completed Duolingo’s Spanish course will maintain their grasp on the language (and, incidentally, their involvement with Duolingo) by listening to the podcast regularly. 

The company also noted that Spanish speakers who are learning English could benefit from the podcast. 

If you want to learn Spanish, and you love a good story, check this podcast out. 

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Instagram just got a needed language update

Languages written from right to left are having an Instagram moment. 

The photo-and-video social app now supports languages read from right to left, including Hebrew, Farsi, and Arabic. The new languages will first be available on Android devices.

Instagram already has more than two dozen language options including Chinese, Greek, Turkish, and Swedish, but those are are all read left to right, like English. Now the app will be compatible with  languages written and read in the other direction.

Posts have already had Arabic and other right-to-left languages in the captions and on hashtags, but now the language settings will include that option within the framework of the app, so phrases like “Stories” and “Likes” will be in those languages.

 Welcome to Instagram, Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew.

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Computers can’t grasp Icelandic. Here’s why that’s a big problem

Iceland, showing off again.
Iceland, showing off again.

Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Iceland’s mother tongue has a major tech problem.

Many new computer devices do not understand Icelandic, a unique descendant of the Old Norse language filled with ultra-descriptive words such as Hundslappadrifa, or “heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind.”

This omission is compounding a bigger issue on the North Atlantic island of about 340,000 people.

Icelandic, seen by residents as a source of identity and pride, is losing ground as English becomes the lingua franca of mass tourism and voice-activated devices, the Associated Press reported.

Linguistic experts have warned the language is at risk of dying out in the modern world, particularly as tourism booms and foreign workers find more jobs on the rugged island. Unless the government, educators, families, and tech developers make a concerted effort to preserve Icelandic, it could easily be relegated to history books.

“The less useful Icelandic becomes in people’s daily life, the closer we as a nation get to the threshold of giving up its use,” Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a language professor at the University of Iceland, told the AP.

When it comes to digital technology, Icelandic is among Europe’s least-supported languages, according to a report by the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance. Other tongues at the bottom of the digital heap include Irish Gaelic, Latvian, Maltese, and Lithuanian. 

Vehicle GPS units stumble over Icelandic names for streets and highways. So-called digital assistants like Apple’s Siri Amazon’s Alexa don’t understand the language — though Amazon is apparently looking to hire a linguist who can help develop speech recognition software for Icelandic.

Without these tools, Icelanders will likely resort to speaking English, diminishing the role of Icelandic in their day-to-day speech.

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“Not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated fridges, interactive robots, and similar devices would be yet another lost field,” Asgeir Jonsson, an economics professor at the University of Iceland, told the AP.

Iceland’s Ministry of Education estimated it would cost about 1 billion Icelandic krona, or $8.8 million, to create an open-access database that allows tech developers to adapt Icelandic as a language option.

Without such an effort, “Icelandic will end in the Latin bin,” former President Vigdis Finnbogadotti told the news agency.

WATCH: Watch as this cute device translate any language it hears