But foreign language teaching, which should start in early grades to take advantage of the human brain's greater capacity to acquire a second language, is seriously underfunded in the elementary grades, and even at the high school level only 90% offer any sort of foreign language courses - and that doesn't touch on the issue of selection or quality. (This is where you pick up your phone and call your State representative.)
So it's a given that Americans may find themselves isolated when coming across foreign languages online. Here's my attempt to make the WORLD wide web a little more accessible to language impoverished Americans. (Meanwhile, look in your community college offerings for language courses. You should at least learn Mexican and Canadian!)
Here are the basic steps you need to take.
- Don't be afraid of foreign languages.
- Don't be afraid to misunderstand - ask questions and clarify.
- Don't be afraid to be misunderstood - but be clear that you're communicating with someone who knows you're using a computer to translate.
- If the letters look like a blank square □ you may need to install the letters for that language on your computer.
- Use a translation program to translate from and to English.
- Google Translate
- Bing Translator
- Free Translation
- Paralink Translation
- Worldlingo Translation
- Babylon Translation
- Reference Translation
- and many more. Look for them by searching for "free online translation."
- Google Translate app supports voice, text, and even image translation
- iTranslate only works on Apple devices
- WayGo is freemium, but it supports more languages than the Google Translate app
So if you're going to be careful with these programs and services, it helps to use your own language in such a way that you avoid ambiguities and idioms. If you're not sure, translate the result back into your own language and see if it still makes sense. When the result is very different, try different ways of saying the same thing until the back-translation makes sense.
For example, take the sentence "Yesterday I registered for classes." It's a simple enough sentence, but it contains a lot of assumptions that you might not be aware of.
If you plug it into Google Translate to translate into German the result sounds awkward, but Germans will understand it. Reverse translate the German result, and you get back what you put in. That's a good sign. Do the same thing in Spanish, and you get back a different result that seems to mean the same thing ("Yesterday I signed up for classes"), but it uses different words. That might be a warning sign. You can repeat the procedure to double check. (It works! Yay!)
Try it with Japanese, and you first discover that the reverse translation of the result is terrible: "The registration for the class yesterday." Perhaps the word "registered" is the problem, so try other ways of saying that. Taking a clue from the Spanish back-translation, try "signed up." The Japanese is different from before, but the back-translation is a lot better.
Here's to more communicative Americans. We may be stupid about learning a new language, but we can at least be incomprehensible!