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New apps give users a world of languages in their pocket

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with an Apple logo as he poses with an Apple iPhone 4 smartphone in this photo illustration take
A man is silhouetted against a video screen with an Apple logo as he poses with an Apple iPhone 4 smartphone in this photo illustration take

By Natasha Baker

TORONTO (Reuters) - New apps are aiming to make traveling in a foreign country easier by putting translation tools in tourists' pockets, makers of the devices said on Monday.

A set of free apps for iOS devices from the language learning company Rosetta Stone give users short exercises so they can learn the basics of another language and commonly used phrases in French, Spanish, German and Italian.

The exercises in the Rosetta Stone Navigator apps use speech recognition to test whether the user is repeating a word correctly.

"It's about speaking - not just about reading and thinking through it," said Jonathan Mudd, senior director of global communications at Rosetta Stone, which is based in Virginia.

"When you get over that obstacle of hearing yourself say words in new languages, and messing them up, you will get comfortable a lot faster," he added.

Another free language app launched by Duolingo, for Android and iPhones, makes learning a new language into a game. Languages are broken down into different components, such as tenses and nouns, and when a user perfects a skill they can unlock new ones.

Other language apps, such as Google Translate and Vocre for iPhone and Android, use speech recognition technology paired with translation technology to translate speech. After speaking a phrase, the app converts it to one of dozens of other languages.

An app called VerbalizeIt, for iPhone and Android, takes a different approach. It connects translators around the globe with people struggling with a language.

Users choose the language they need to be translated and after touching a button on the app they are connected to a person on the other end of the phone. The app is free but the cost of the service ranges from $1 to $2 per minute.

"That call from the customer is routed through our virtual call center to the next available translator for that given language you need," said Ryan Frankel, chief executive officer of New York-based company VerbalizeIt.

The company said more than 8,500 translators, who have passed a language proficiency exam, work for it. It has also launched a platform for businesses to translate documents.

"We realized that when you build up this community of translators they're capable of doing so much more than phone translations," Frankel said.

He added that it may still be some time before apps can accurately translate speech from one language to another.

"I think the biggest hurdle - and this is the reason why you will always need humans - is that understanding local context, dialect, sarcasm and emotion is difficult. There's so much that a machine cannot pick up on that humans are capable of picking up on," Frankel said.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Mohammad Zargham)

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