As Otávio Good travelled through Germany with his girlfriend four years ago, one word jumped out at him everywhere he looked.
“I kept seeing these signs everywhere that said ‘einfahrt’, and I know that ein means one and farht, well that’s just pretty funny,” the computer programmer told the Georgia Straight by phone from San Francisco.
Eventually, he learned that einfahrt wasn’t a singular bodily function but the German word for entry. Soon, Good would join others in the world of language apps with his creation Word Lens.
The app allows people to use their iPhone or iPad to scan a sign or text written in French, Spanish, and English. Word Lens automatically translates the text and changes the image on the screen to show the translation in the original font and format.
“You can walk around another country with a dictionary, and maybe it will take you 15 seconds to look up a word,” Good said. “I thought, ‘If I can’t beat 20 seconds, I just lost to the dictionary, so it is completely worthless.’ That’s why I decided to make this with video, so that it is real-time and it is interactive and it is not just easy to use—it is fun to use.”
According to Good, there have been approximately three million downloads of his app. The demo is free, but language packs each cost $9.99. Word Lens is working on German, Italian, and Portuguese packs.
While Good knows his visual translator has received praise for its innovation, he insists it’s not just a party trick for travellers. “Overall, people like it not just because it has this wow factor, but it is also useful,” he said. “The fact Word Lens shows the translation in context is really powerful, and it will help to learn a language.”
Word Lens is a well-known example, but it isn’t the only app marketing the value of using mobile technology to learn a language. In Vancouver, Kosta ChatziSpiros wants people who are learning English to use his app Supiki.
“It is the world’s first smart app that actually listens to what you say and responds like a dialogue,” ChatziSpiros, cofounder and CEO of Linguacomm Enterprises, told the Straight by phone. “It lets you practise by having a conversation with it. It talks back, and it is not just a listen-and-repeat exercise.”
Soft-launched in November 2011, Supiki is aimed at people who already have a good grip on grammar and vocabulary. According to ChatziSpiros, the key to becoming fluent in English is practice.
“Think of our app as an example of the equivalent of the textbook you can keep in your pocket and you can carry around and practise whenever you want, whenever you feel like it, to have a natural-language conversation without embarrassing yourself,” ChatziSpiros said.
While Supiki is only available for English right now, ChatziSpiros is planning to explore whether there is an appetite for his app in other languages. “The big market globally is people learning English,” he said. “Over $100 billion a year is being spent globally on that. It’s a lot of money.”
Rita Santillan, a Spanish instructor and online course developer at the University of British Columbia, cautions that human instruction is still a critical component of learning a language.
“Technology is a tool, a really wonderful tool, and with it we can do wonderful things, but it really is just a tool,” Santillan told the Straight by phone.
With webinars, videos, and online worksheets, the Internet has provided a variety of ways to learn a language, but Santillan believes students need interaction with a teacher to help everything come together.
“To learn is a process,” Santillan said. “We—the instructors, the educators, the teachers—we focus on the students and try to figure out how to use the tools to help the people. The interaction doesn’t have to be face-to-face all the time. It doesn’t have to be classes 8 to 10 every Tuesday. It doesn’t have to be like that. We can use the technology, but someone has to be behind that. You need a professional who knows, who can evaluate how things are going.”