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Struggling to communicate with foreigners in their own language is one of the most interesting aspects of traveling for many people, but new smartphone applications and other technological advances are changing the game.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/18/2009 1:07:32 PM ET 2009-12-18T18:07:32

It’s nearly 2010, another milestone in a century where sci-fi fantasy is fast becoming high-tech fact. Travelers are boldly traveling where (and how) they’ve never traveled before, free from the burden of guidebooks, pocket-bulging brochures and absurdly oversized fold-out maps that shout “tourist” (and “pick my pocket”).

These days, destination, museum and other sightseeing guides fit in the palm of your hand — along with a compass and GPS — so you’ll never be late for a flamenco show and lost in Sevilla, or anywhere else on earth, again.

They’re available as applications for the cellular phenomenon that is the smartphone. BlackBerries, iPhones, Androids and other devices can search four-star Florence restaurants by the moonlit Arno River or surf for hotel recommendations and book a room, all on the spot.

Need to SitOrSquat in Spain? Toilet apps like Have2P (includes an “urgency detector”) and SitOrSquat (it functions worldwide) locate lavatories and offer restroom reviews. Tap the smartphone screen and presto! — a renewable resource of travel tools and information materializes.

Talk to the smartphone
Where to eat? What to see? What’s the story behind that two-headed statue? Tricked out with the right apps, the uber-portable smartphone has answers to these eternal travel questions.

If enigmas arise that an app or Web search can’t solve, a host of free or inexpensive language translators can help you ask the question, or in some cases, do the asking for you.

Lonely Planet, Rick Steves and other travel publishing titans have digitized versions of their phrase books, but that’s merely the beginning. Future App’s iSpeak surpasses preprogrammed phrases and lets users type whatever they wish to say into a text window — “there are ants in our hotel room” — hit translate, read the text-generated translation in another window, and then touch “Speak it!” to hear the correct pronunciation.

What Emirates Airlines’ iLingual may lack in comparable vocabulary range it makes up for in creativity and its potential for sheer silliness. A camera and mouth-morphing feature lets your lips do the translating, literally, into French, Arabic, or German. Choose from one of 400 phrases, snap a picture of your mouth, or if you have a magazine handy, Angelina Jolie, or any other celeb kisser you might covet. (Even a poodle’s pout works according to a product description for iLingual French, and makes it look like Fifi can parlez Francais.) Next hold the phone to your mouth while the animated lips speak and see the startled looks on locals’ faces. It’s nothing if not a conversational icebreaker.

The app sends the message that “speaking another language is fun,” said Erica Cohen, a spokesperson for Emirates. The app allows users to personalize by adding multiple personalities, choosing gender and altering pitch, and appears to be a global hit. Fans have even begun uploading YouTube videos of their more inventive iLingual uses like orchestrating humming-lip harmonies.

While the U.S. military has been working to perfect mobile translators for soldiers, Google recently previewed its own speech-recognition translator app. During the demo, Google’s V.P. of Engineering uttered a sentence in English into a smartphone and a female voice responded with the Spanish translation. Google hopes to deliver the app sometime in 2010.

The next frontier
Traveling with apps not far off from the universal translators used on “Star Trek” has its obvious advantages: less to lug, more help deciphering menus or chatting up the svelte, blue-eyed Swede at the table next to you.

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If, like Lonely Planet U.S. Travel Editor Robert Reid, you’ve ever visited a country and longed for subtitles to make sense of the surrounding signs and chatter, you’ll know what a difference grasping even a few words of a destination’s language makes.

A traveler’s “whole trip will be changed” when his or her scope of communication expands beyond “the taxi driver and the guest house owner,” with or without a linguistic leg up from a device, Reid said.

Most natives react with surprise and delight when a foreigner makes an effort to babble a few words of Bulgarian, or whatever the language, and forgive any blunders, Reid noted.

When that effort is produced by computerized lips or a talking cell phone, (especially if iLingual’s Paris test footage is any indication), many locals are equally, if not more, tickled (though slightly unnerved) by the “cool” technology.

Plus, when you’re frantic to find out when the next train is leaving, turning to an app is “better than insisting they [a local] speak English and you speak louder and louder English, the kind that gets you labeled an ugly American and makes real communication impossible,” said Ana Celia Zentella, a professor in Swarthmore College’s linguistics department.

“The key to learning a new language is repetition,” added Patricia Wallace, Senior Director of Information Technology at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins. The more you speak, read or hear an unfamiliar tongue, whether with an app or old-school phrase book, the more you learn.

Tower of Babel, take two
While mobile translators might figuratively be poised to restore the linguistic harmony lost when the biblical Tower of Babel fell, they also might have the potential to wreak cultural havoc.

Accomplished travel author, journalist and vagabonding guru Rolf Potts warned that improper use of the apps could “irritate Parisians to no end” and resonate as “a very vulgar American thing to do.” Parisians “prefer a more organic interaction,” he said, adding tourists should at least try to engage the French in low-tech pleasantries before introducing them to a smartphone sidekick.

Marty Abbott doesn’t recommend translators “for a high-stakes conversation where a blunder can mean a problem in terms of establishing a relationship.” Abbott, the Director of Education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said homonyms (words such as “maid” and “made”), along with diverse dialects, the complexities of gauging context and the potential for literal translations, make the machine translators “fraught with miscommunication. Literal translation is not what language is about,” she said.

The apps offer “a quick fix” that omits the part of the learning process that seeks to understand a culture and its world view. “There’s no substitute for hunkering down and learning a language.” Translator apps “are best for people who know something about the language,” Abbott said.

Zentella, who frequently wanders off the beaten track, said smartphone technology “communicates a class background and privilege” that could hamper communication, or at the very least may “get you charged more” when vendors hawking their wares spot you and your iPhone.

Get lost — figuratively and literally
Gender, age, economic and social status, slang and the tricky concepts of metaphor, sarcasm and irony are also potential linguistic pitfalls.

Google took these variables into account when developing its speech-recognition application. Principal Scientist Franz Och explained that it’s a combination of statistical translation technology and human input.

Google “trains” its online universal translator (which powers the new app and many other electronic translators) by gathering Web data while refining the learning algorithms so they learn more from less data. Users can submit updated translations if they catch inaccuracies.

Then there’s the practical matter of power. Programs that require chargers and Wi-Fi to function might be limited where they are needed most — in remote, rural corners of the planet.

Potts said tech tools “make travel easier but blander,” and thinks travelers should wean themselves from the “electronic umbilical cord” that includes translators, Twitter, blogging and other digital-age habits that “have a way of separating you from your environment.”

In other words, bask in the beauty of the Sistine Chapel without tweeting your every thought for an anticipated Web audience. Getting lost — linguistically, geographically or in any sense of the word — is sometimes the best way to explore.

Please and thank you
Translator apps can be an invaluable tool with the proper attitude, etiquette and a little phrase practice before you land in a spot where language could present an obstacle.

Zentella said travelers should learn to say “please,” “thank you” and basic questions. Lonely Planet’s Reid said it’s best to know how to say “hello,” “excuse me” and “may I ask a question” without the aid of an app, and to be respectful of cultural nuances such as personal space and acceptable gestures. A trip can be drastically altered simply by spending 90 minutes learning the alphabet, he said.

Potts put it simply: “Don’t let language apps make you lazy.”

The novelty of this new technology will eventually subside, Wallace said. Gaffes will be made as people use them “too aggressively or intimately,” but norms will eventually be established and balance will be attained.

Until then, hopefully no one greeted by tourists with translating dog lips will be offended.

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