In Europe, the first convoy of driverless trucks have crossed Europe heralding what some see as the end of the truckies life. In Singapore, the first driverless taxis have hit the streets – perhaps the end of another group of professionals we love to hate (and the eponymous movies). Does Waverly Labs soon-to-be-released new wearable technology device that translates conversations in real-time point to the same destiny for language teachers? Probably not, but it will, if it holds true to its promise, make conversing with someone where neither party has a common language a whole lot easier.
The Pilot, Waverly Labs moniker for their new technology, will take us into the place that will challenge our need to learn new languages.
Being ‘lost in translation’ has happened to everyone while traveling and that’s exactly how the idea was born. Waverly Labs is committed to bridging the gap between language barriers with the world’s first smart earpiece language translator. Science fiction has called it many things, but we call it the Pilot.
The Pilot fits into your ear and is controlled through a phone app. It can work, according to the developers, off-line and comes with an additional earpiece for wireless streaming music in case you tire of listening to your interlocutor’s appified conversation. As the Pilot hasn’t been released yet it’s not possible to provide much detail around the quality of translations, how accurate it is in translating idioms and expressions or how large its lexical store is.
Initially, the Pilot will only translate latin and romance languages via ‘language packs’ but there are plans to expand this offering. The developers note that there may be a problem with strong accents or dialects and that the product comes with two earpieces one of which you give to your conversational partner to enable the conversation. Carry some disinfectant wipes if you’re thinking of sharing around the Provencal market as you fluently ‘converse’ with sellers while buying your ‘kilo de pommes et deux kilo de pommes de terre’ from the stall holder who speaks… oh, French with an incredibly strong Provencal accent.
One promised future development that I would really love is the ‘eavesdropping’ feature. In their FAQ section the developers promise that in ‘future generations of the earpiece will be updated to listen to EVERYTHING happening around you, not just the person you are talking to‘. How many times have I sat in cafés in strange lands and wanted to know what they were talking about at the table next to me. At last a solution! For the proposed $250-300 price tag, I’m in just for that.
For a truck driver the advent of driverless trucks may give good reason to be contemplating a bleak future, at least for those thinking of investing in a heavy vehicle license now, but for TEFL teachers, or any language teacher, will the advent of devices like the Pilot really be a professional end-game? In five or ten years will your brand new TEFL qualification be a useful step in your career teaching English? Will there still be a need to ‘teach’ English?
Language, being the complex, fluid, developing and often irrational and irregular tool that it is may defy, for some time to come, the attempts by the tech wizardry to squeeze it into an app and still make it resonate with all of its subtlety and beauty. So far, machine translation has given us sometimes useful, but often hilariously inaccurate, translations of language and while we can expect these machine translations to improve over time, can we expect a machine to eventually pick up on irony, sarcasm, wit and the thousands of other ways we inflect meaning into our speech beyond the literalness of a word’s dictionary meaning. The technological leaps of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century are incredible but are they as incredible as language?
Although there is very limited information out yet you can visit the Waverly Labs website to read more about the Pilot or make a pre-order.
Update: since this article was published there has been a lot of developments in the field of simultaneous audio and text machine translation. Some of the giant tech companies like Google have entered the field and may make it hard for Waverly Labs products to get any market share. As of writing, it seems that their products have yet to be released.