Google Translate: the written word

Over at Google, the New Years present for 2012 is titled Sometimes it’s just easier to write. An update to the Google Translate app for Android in which one can enter characters via the touch screen:

Our goal is to break down the language barrier, all the time, everywhere. By adding handwriting input directly into our Android app we hope to help you get translation done even more quickly and easily. Sometimes you don’t know how to say what you want translated, sometimes you can’t type it, and sometimes it’s easier just to write it. We think of handwriting on the touchscreen as another natural input…

This is still an experimental feature. It’s available in Chinese and Japanese, and you can enable it for English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish if you like. (We currently only support single-character input for Chinese and Japanese.) Just as with speech recognition and our translations themselves, our handwriting recognition happens in the cloud, allowing us to continually improve accuracy without requiring you to download new versions of the app.

A list of almost every writing system

Boingboing recently posted a link to Omniglot, “an online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages” that looks very interesting. There’s the page of translated phrases (eg My hovercraft is full of eelsOne language is never enoughIt’s all Greek to me), the list of language names, an index of languages by writing system (who knew the Canadian aboriginals had a writing system, or that it was strikingly sharp), and a long list of curated articles about language.

Short Cuts, the end of 2011

With the new year having started, I’ve been too busy child minding to get anything solid on the blog recently, but here are the stories that have piqued my interest:

  • The Economist has The gift of tongues, a review of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners by Michael Erard (buy at Amazon), about hyperpolyglots. Wikipedia describes a hyperpolyglot as someone that speaks six or more languages, Erard pushes this out to eleven or more languages. Interesting points are made about the need to “prime” weaker languages in one’s repertoire before speaking in it – phase shifting has always been difficult, as translators and interpretors know well. It’s a short, interesting article, although one doesn’t get’s the feeling that the book has much more information. (edit: Unfortunately I’ve not the time or resources to read the book itself, but Michael has contacted me to say that there is much more to the book than the Economist article adresses. Of course, if I hadn’t been child minding a 30 second google search would have lead me to the book’s website,, which I have just found, and where you can find out more about the book)
  • A Slashdot post called New Online Dictionaries Automate Away the Linguistic Middleman pointed me to an interesting article about potential future dictionaries. Instead of having an edited, or pruned, list of definitions, these services – two are listed, Wordnik and The Corpus of Contemporary American English – show the word you search for in a number of contexts – dictionary definition, examples on how it’s been used recently, a word’s collocates (words usually found near the original word), related words, lists the word may belong to, tweets containing the word, sounds and visuals. While I don’t think it replaces the dictionary, these services are certainly a fascinating progression from what we grew up with.
  • I can’t remember how I got there, but the 24 Ways blog has a great article Creating Custom Font Stacks with Unicode-Range. A tutorial on how to use different fonts on the same page within HTML5 – an easy and light way to change the font for numerals or caps for instance. Using the original Use the Best Available Ampersand as a case study is fantastic – a solid use case with a simpler implementation.
  • For those still hanging on to the Academy, Slashdot makes some devestating points in When Getting Rid of College Lectures Makes Sense, but let’s cut to the chase:

    Joe Redish also teaches physics, at the University of Maryland, and says, ‘With modern technology, if all there is is lectures, we don’t need faculty to do it. … Get ’em to do it once, put it on the Web, and fire the faculty.'”

    (emphasis mine). I’ve said similar before, and I believe it. Classes need to be turned around – all the lecture watching should be happening at home – class time is for discussion, problem solving and example exploration.