Translation technology: Can it bridge the language skills gap?

Can technology bridge the language skills gap? Panos Kaniotis thinks so.

Throughout history, time-saving innovations have transformed our lives and enabled us to achieve more. Communication is one area where advancements in technology have really made an impact in the way people can learn, with a plethora of tools and resources to help cross cultural and language barriers.

Translation technology is one area that suggests the possibility of instant communication; the ability for two or more people to hold a seamless conversation despite the lack of a common language between them. It sounds ideal, but in reality there’s more to understanding a language than translating words.

For effective cross-border business communication, there’s no substitution or quick fix for authentic language skills.

Frictionless communication?

Direct translation solutions have caught many people’s attention as a variety now exist. These range from online translation tools to mobile apps that translate text on smart phones, to inner ear pieces for conversations translated in real time.

Language is subjective; much is said through tone of voice and phraseology. Conversations are as much about interpreting, as they are conveying, meaning.

Such tools suggest the potential for unknown levels of freedom from translation services and a potential solution to the language gap that holds many international businesses back. A vision of a world without communication barriers is a nice idea – instant and frictionless communication without any time or effort needed for study and practice to master communication across languages.

But the reality is drastically different. Language is subjective; much is said through tone of voice and phraseology. Conversations are as much about interpreting, as they are conveying, meaning. When it comes to the subtleties of human interaction, this is one way in which technology can be the barrier.

People may speak and listen with the aid of translation devices, but do they communicate and understand the meaning behind the words?

The sort of word-for-word translations that many solutions provide lack an appreciation of context, phraseology and nuance. Turns of phrase or sayings, often unique to individual languages, can’t be easily translated into others.

It is these nuances that make each individual language unique and a necessity to learn. Translation apps, which may be suitable as a short term solution, can trip up here, potentially resulting in mistakes and misunderstandings. These can be devastating in business settings and can become the misstep that causes a negotiation to take a turn for the worse.

Translation solutions can provide the appeal of a ‘quick fix’ and the ‘bare bones’ of meaning; useful for gaining a general idea of what’s been written or said but not ideal for conducting business conversations or translating corporate communications, where accuracy is imperative.

Cultural awareness also factors in and is another critical part of mastering communication that cannot be grasped through translation. Miscommunication and misunderstandings may result if we rely on translation technology in these situations.

The advantage of in-house language skills

In competitive global markets, businesses without multilingual teams are at a disadvantage. Multilingual employees are more able to communicate with international customers, colleagues and suppliers.

This capability can lead to not only higher quality negotiations and increased sales opportunities, but it creates trust as well with customers and clients. Improved productivity, better cross-team collaboration and improved employee engagement and motivation can also result from an investment in language skills.

In fact, 71% of respondents to a recent survey by Rosetta Stone said language training improved their job performance and 64% said it made them more productive in their work with teams, partners and vendors.

Virtual learning

Recognising translation services won’t suffice to address the diverse language training needs in the workplace, it’s important to find the right solution that will. But that doesn’t mean that technology doesn’t have a role to play in building language capabilities in business.

In fact, technology is a critical resource and offers a way to connecting business teams who are likely based in many parts of the world.

There are many digital programmes available that delve into language education and can address business needs. Organisations can adopt language tools that enable learners to take advantage of both traditional and digital learning.

Look for high-quality content that is paired with virtual tutors so learners have the opportunity to practice what they’re learning and perfect their speech. They can also help build the learner’s appreciation of the subtleties of the language being learned, including popular phrases and their meanings.

This not only bridges the gaps translation technology can leave but also helps learners build fluency and confidence through regular conversation practice.

Digital language learning programmes have the added benefit of flexibility and fitting around busy work schedules. They support learners as they develop skills at their own pace and allow for a more personalised learning environment. For many global businesses, they provide a long-term technology solution to bridge the language skills gap.

Smart Investment

No matter where your business may take you, chances are high your path will cross with people from all over the world. Global business communications rely as much on how things are said – the feeling and meaning behind the words – as the words themselves, so it’s important to invest in upskilling your workforce to ensure they are ready.

With the many options now available to choose from, businesses should be wise when selecting tools to help upskill their employees in languages.


About the author 

Panos Kraniotis is regional director, Europe at Rosetta Stone.


Read more from Panos here


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