Monday, May 7, 2012

Parlez-vous français? ¿Habla español? Google Chrome does and so will you.

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Late last week the Google Translate team unveiled the beta version of a revolutionary app for the Chrome browser. It has the potential to change the way students, businesses, and just about anyone with an interest, learn languages. Language Immersion for Google Chrome does just what the name implies; it integrates language immersion study techniques into the Chrome browser as a user is viewing web pages.
Most of the best known language immersion programs (Rosetta Stone, Berlitz, Assimil, etc.) are either in-classroom, book or interactive CD format. The fact that Google’s app steps into the realm of a tool most people use every day; the web browser; makes the idea even more intriguing to me. The potential for its use is great and, unlike the aforementioned paid programs, Google’s app is very cost effective at the low, low price of free.

Don’t get me wrong. When the other immersion techniques are employed properly, they can be extremely effective. What I am really getting at is that the deployment of this app opens up the potential benefits of immersion learning to a whole new world of people including students, businesses and the like.

Just think of it. You could build your workforce to be a virtual army of somewhat functional polyglots during normal everyday research and work on the web. Chuck in accounting could learn a bit about Mandarin working in the finance cloud (knowing that it is probably the future language of finance). Jackie, your lead North American salesperson could learn French to break into the untapped Quebec market during her regularly scheduled data mining time each day.

The other advantage to using language immersion software and making it free to the public is that those who had say, 6 years of a language in high school and college, but haven’t used it that much can brush up and possibly regain some level of fluency. That would make an already good employee even better in my eyes because I have a whole new skill set I can leverage into my plan of attack. Say Chuck from the example above had studied Eastern languages alongside his accounting degree. Say he brushes up on that Mandarin. Chuck is now in charge of our big RFP in Shanghai. Maybe someday he’ll be in charge of our China operations.

OK so maybe these scenarios are a bit farfetched. But are they really?

The app is not perfect but I have a feeling it soon will be with input from users and some more programming from the Google Translate team. They’ve already developed pretty darn good automatic translation feature for Gmail. Google admittedly says all translations might not be 100% accurate. For instance, the app translated a phrase about a ‘ key industry’ professional in Intermediate Spanish to ‘clave de la industria.’ The phrase was grammatically correct but probably could be said a better way and more colorfully in the context of the sentence should the whole thing have been in Spanish.  The same could be said for the French translations.

Grammatically correct is good enough for business though right? 

The point I am trying to make here isn’t that the app is flawed. To the contrary, the app is pretty solid. If I were to send my top salespeople to France for a big industry summit in 6 months, I would have them train on this app. Would they become masters of français in that amount of time? Probably not. Would they likely pick up some key phrases to communicate with others and bring some humanity and respect back in to the conversation with those in the host country? Absolutely.

This very minute, I can take out my smart phone, fire up a translator app that will listen to the person talking to me in any one of a number of languages and translate it into English. I then can speak into the phone to answer them, with very little effort. The translations are not always accurate and sometimes comical to both speakers involved. That being said, a $1.99 (USD) app on my phone can help overcome the language barrier with relative ease but it isn’t very personal.

Free language immersion apps seem as if they just might be a way to bridge the gap between the emotionless technology and the animation of humanity.

Software such as this has the potential to do good on so many levels. It helps bring that human touch and personality back into conversations between individuals. It can lift employees up to a new level within a business to the benefit not only the business, but to the employee as well. It can give your organization the reputation for being a global enterprise for reasons other than having office locations all over the world. It can expand the number of quality trade show and conference opportunities for you and your company. Heck, it can help open markets that were previously closed off via a quick conversation at one of those foreign trade shows.

One thing is for certain. All the technology in the world can’t replace a warm blooded handshake and a greeting in a native tongue. Language immersion training is beneficial to business because it brings a human element into the conversation. And even if the conversation is a little off or a little disjointed, it will go miles beyond what a machine voice pointed at your face can do in the relationship building process.

It’s my opinion that, even if we can develop the Universal translator for Ensign Hoshi (which oddly enough had emotions and inflections down pretty well), today’s companies should use this technology and encourage their workforce to immerse themselves into language learning during the course of their daily work. It just might provide that extra ounce of personalization to make your global organization even more successful.