One of the great things about running ELTjam HQ from a co-working space is the different people and businesses working alongside us. We were amazed the other week to find that, unbeknownst to us, fellow co-worker and entrepreneur Marcel Goya has been working away on LinguSocial, a platform for voice translation that could change everything.

Can you briefly explain what LinguSocial does?

An outbound voice calls with machine translation so users can listen and see the conversation in real-time in their browser.
An outbound voice call with machine translation so users can listen and see the conversation in real-time in their browser.

LinguSocial is a platform that lets you do video and voice chats, voice calls to landlines and mobiles and instant messaging with real-time automatic translation from within your browser, landline or smartphone. People can choose between using machine translation for a very cheap price or having real interpreters. We are going to offer the following pricing tiers for the interpreting service:

Only non-profits and charities will be able to use the voluntary service. The interpreters can decide for themselves if they want to offer their services to them.

What’s your background in languages?

I don’t have a professional background but I speak two languages fluently and my wife’s family also speaks Spanish, which creates a language barrier because I don’t speak Spanish at all. I’ve been working as a developer all my life and that’s why I approach language barriers from a different perspective.

Why did you decide to build it?

The idea of building the platform grew out of the frustration I experienced by not being able to communicate with my parents-in-law. I always had to rely on my wife to act as an interpreter for us. At the time there was no product on the market that allowed you to have automatically translated video chats, so I built a prototype and tested it with my in-laws. The experience was absolutely incredible and I realised that this platform can change the way people access translation and interpretation services worldwide.

Who are your ideal customers and how do you expect them to use LinguSocial?

We have three target groups:

The most used features will be the video chat and the outbound voice calls to landlines or mobiles. The interpreters are going to play a major role. We’re just giving them the tools to do a great job and provide the best possible service.

What are the customers currently doing to get around the language problem?

The general problem at the moment is that access to interpreters is mainly possible by using local agencies who work with a small pool of local interpreters. This is very expensive and also not very flexible when the customer needs to have access to a qualified interpreter within a short period of time. Because of that, large enterprises and government agencies tend to hire interpreters directly, so that they have constant access to interpreting services.

What aspects of communication does this system work well for? Are there any things that it can’t do well?

Making voice calls is the key feature of our platform because it allows our customers to simply call a telephone number anywhere in the world and talk to a person who doesn’t speak his/her language. Also doing video chats makes the experience much more personal. There are obviously limits with the machine translation technology. We are aware of them and we know that they’re not going to replace human interpreters soon. But we also think that our customers can use machine translation to have conversations in situations where the context doesn’t have to be 100% correct and it’s also low-cost.

Do you expect this technology and platform to become ubiquitous?

I hope so, because I think that this platform can help people from all over the world to make communication between them easier.

What language learning features are there in your platform?

With our platform people will be able to see and hear the translation of what they’ve said, no matter if they’re having a video chat, on a voice call or they’re instant messaging. They can also add their favourite translations to a phrasebook or get them sent via text message to their phones. This is handy when people are travelling abroad and when they have to communicate with locals.

Do you plan on adding any more learning features?

We’re planning to create a training centre for the interpreters when we start building the marketplace for them. We think that giving non-professional interpreters the best tools to provide a great service is going to benefit the interpreting industry as a whole.

What impact do you expect this tech to have on people’s desire to learn languages?

I’m sure that it will increase a lot, especially for people who might consider working as an interpreter but are put off by the low pay they receive from the agencies they’re working for.

How do interpreters feel about LinguSocial?

I don’t think machine translation will be replacing human interpreters anytime soon. I think it’s positive when people talk about this kind of stuff because it shows the importance of having professional interpreters. One of the main reasons for developing the platform was to liberate professional interpreters from working for agencies and receiving low pay and not being flexible with their working hours. With our platform they’ll be receiving 70% of the money we charge our clients and they can also work whenever and wherever they want. Marcel Goya is a 31 year old software developer and the founder of LinguSocial.  Originally from Germany, he’s been living in London for the past 7 years. His wife is from Colombia and she is the reason for his interest in learning new languages.

What do you think?

Would people learn English (or any language) if the technology meant it was no longer necessary? Could having interpreters as readily available as Uber taxis mean more businesses would use the service instead of putting staff through long and costly language programs?

18 Comments

  1. Products “that could change everything” hardly ever change anything in the real world.

    Interesting as LinguSocial may sound to people with no professional background in languages, it seems to be based on some wrong assumptions.

    Here are a few examples:
    1) The main reason why interpretation is expensive is because it’s a highly specialised service AND because it’s bloody difficult. Even fully bilingual people don’t always make good interpreters.
    2) ‘Hobbyists’ are not real interpreters. Have you ever heard of ‘hobbyist editors’?
    3) No serious business person would risk discussing anything related to their business using a ‘hobbyist interpreter’. Who’d be resposible for the consequences of the mistakes beginners & hobbyists are likely to make?
    4) Good interpreters are busy people. You often have to book them well in advance. They don’t tend to stay online hoping to be selected to do a 5-minute job.
    5) Professional interpreters usually ask their clients for some materials in advance because they want to be well prepared (e.g. check key vocabulary). Accepting a job on the spot, without some preparation time, is not a good idea.

    Call me a pessimist, but it may end up being a tool for underqualified people offering their services below the market rates.

    Hopefully, it will work with the in-laws!

    1. I completely disagree with you. The main reason why interpreting is expensive, is because companies like LanguageLine solutions charge 4.00$ per minute for phone interpreting services. The interpreters get 12-14$ per hour out of that. So do your calculation and you know why they make more the 400 million dollars a year profit.

      You are right that it’s a difficult job and the people are also not being paid what they deserve. That’s the reason why I’m developing this platform, because I want to stop companies like LanguageLine from milking this industry.

      And as for these under qualified people you mentioned. It might be somebody who just started working in this industry as a professional or just to gain experience. And I’d be happy to have him / her interpret a voice call with my in-laws.

  2. It may be hyperbole to claim this platform and business model will ‘change everything’ but it could be giving us a glimpse into the future of language teaching and learning.
    Those of us who work in ELT, whether as teachers, writers, publishers or something else, typically share an interest in language for its own sake. We have studied linguistics, have learned multiple languages, have lived and taught all over the world.
    By contrast, the vast majority of people who use our products and services (ELT materials, language classes) have little interest in language in its own right. They just have a need to communicate in English. To date the only way to achieve that has been to learn the language themselves. But with the advent of businesses such as Lingusocial, that may no longer be the case. Just as Google Maps has obviated the need to learn map-reading skills, so will businesses like this render obsolete much of today’s ELT business.

    Those of us who are interested in languages,and who enjoy the language learning experience will continue to study and learn in somewhat conventional ways. But we are the minority. Once there is a convenient and affordable way to circumvent the expensive and time-consuming language learning process, I’d bet that most people will opt for it.

    1. Janet says “But with the advent of businesses such as Lingusocial, that may no longer be the case. Just as Google Maps has obviated the need to learn map-reading skills, so will businesses like this render obsolete much of today’s ELT business.”

      What a privileged and myopic world most of us live in. You see, map-reading skills are not redundant. I regularly go walking in places with no GPS coverage and take a map with me. Of course, in the city, in the developed world with cheap 3G and all that, map-reading may be a dying art – but you’re in a minority, Janet, and so am I.

      The difference, perhaps, is that I can empathise with the rest of the world and the PLS set (to which Brendan refers elsewhere) seemingly cannot. Much of the world does not have a smartphone, connectivity and all the rest. They will remain totally unaffected by this thing that ‘will change everything’.

      And even among those of us who are always on, I suspect the majority will still enjoy learning languages because communication is about so much more than translation – it’s about people, not screens, it’s about lovers, travellers, cinema fans, musicians, mechanics… It’s never going to be about sitting in front of screens, and those who believe that everything is about to change may be too far embedded in the ‘babel fish’ mythology to see the real world around them.

      It’s a nice, niche service – but I don’t see it even taking off hugely in business either. Communication isn’t about this, at all. It’s a quick fix to talk to the in-laws, but the clever humans will spend that time learning the language – they’ll get much more out of the in-laws in the long run.

      Gavin

      1. Gavin, if the vast majority of people don’t have access to tech and smartphones etc and learn a language in order to get a better job and life prospects, then they’re already not served by what’s on offer for free ie online resources. The people that learn a language for travel and the cinema? Those are luxuries and many people couldn’t care less if they watch films that are dubbed and only travel inside their own country – or not at all. To assume the majority learn through love of languages is speaking from the privileged position where language learning is a hobby. Most students find it an expensive chore and have a myriad things they’d rather be doing with their spare time.

        As for learning it in school, Brendan, maybe that would become less popular if it were less needed and students would drop it as soon as they could – as many English kids do. I don’t think mental arithmetic features as high on a curriculum as it did before calculators.

        1. Hi Nicola,

          I wouldn’t dismiss your point at all, and I did wonder about this the first time I saw the Microsoft simultaneous machine translation tool in action (though, admittedly, as a YouTube clip). It is certainly possible that in the future languages *MAY* become deprioritised on the curriculum in many countries. However, my point was that control over curricula is generally beyond the control of the individual, and therefore in state-run schools personal preferences may have very little sway on whether a person chooses to study a language or not. In the UK we have quite a flexible system and kids can drop their compulsory foreign language when they start GCSEs (aged 14). In other countries, though, this isn’t the case. Ministries set specific targets (e.g. all students should have B2 level English by the time they complete secondary education), and it is often an essential prerequisite for entry into university. For languages to be deprioritised a decision would have to be made at the top of a hierarchy, and in my experience these hierarchies tend to be highly regulated and quite conservative.

          Regarding maths, I’m actually up to my ears in GCSE maths revision at the moment, supporting my son who struggles greatly with basic arithmetic.The UK always suffers terribly when compared in league tables for maths with other countries – we bottom out in Europe, and against Asian countries we are simply pants. But even here two of the four papers are non-calculator and you can’t do anything without basic arithmetic skills – percentages, fractions, angles, problem solving, etc. all come back to mastery of what experts call ‘number facts’. And, without a decent maths result your options are seriously limited – even low-entry-level vocational diplomas require at least a ‘D’ in maths GCSE to be admitted to the course. Additionally, those students who get below a ‘C’ will be provided with dedicated support during their diploma to retake and pass their GCSE maths. It is basically considered a life skill:innumerate people are considered disadvantaged. Numeracy, along with literacy, are core pillars of our education system.

          Incidentally, the big mantra from this year’s BETT technology convention in London was this: ‘coding is the new Latin.’ There are all sorts of initiatives to get kids into coding, but try coding without basic maths skills. In fact, try it without good maths skills.

        2. Nicola,

          If you think travel is a luxury, try talking to all the people who, each year, travel abroad in search of the jobs that they can’t find in their own countries.

          I’m not entirely sure what your argument is here, though – there’s already nothing good out there so this is alright? is that the gist of it?

          Gavin

    2. ‘Once there is a convenient and affordable way to circumvent the expensive and time-consuming language learning process, I’d bet that most people will opt for it.’

      Hi Janet,

      Your premise is based on people learning languages through choice, and yet any visit to a state secondary classroom full of teenagers will show that attending any class is rarely a voluntary pastime for a great many learners. The wide availability of calculators over decades has not made learning multiplication and division optional, nor unuseful. If a foreign language is considered a prerequisite for school, university or work, then people will probably continue to study one.

      I often feel that on this blog contributors talk about the Adult self-study and Adult PLS segments as if they represent the entire world of ELT, because that is where most people reading/using this blog work. And yet … the majority of ELT can probably be located in non-adult formal and compulsory education.

    3. You’ve perfectly summed up how I feel about language learning myself though ELT people recoil in horror and get out the crucifixes when I utter the thought — as if I am under a moral obligation to like something they like. For a huge number of students it’s a chore not a hobby and, like any chore, as soon as a tool comes along that you can afford, you buy it and do something more fun with your extended free time. Let’s not forget that language learning is rarely free and another solution may well be cheaper, especially once you factor in the time saved. I completely empathise with that and think it’s good to remember that enjoying learning a language in its own right makes it a hobby and that is a luxury thing to have. As you say, everything would change if an alternative to language learning was good enough and affordable, because millions of people would stop studying.
      I think there’s an interesting speculative conversation to be had about a future where language learning becomes an elitist hobby with those who genuinely learn it looking down on those that take the shortcut. At the same time, only those with money, depending on the tool, would be able to take the shortcut so they’d be in a financially elite group, while access to the first, intellectual, elite could be found by learning the language for those unable to afford the shortcut.

    1. That was my line as I do think it would change everything if the way I envision the system came to pass. As you say the thing that makes it different is the service aspect as the software itself is not new. I can imagine a meeting that starts off with chit chat and regular conversation being done by machine translation, then switching to a human interpreter who’s online and can be selected as you might book an Uber. You’d select the one with the language and expertise you needed (or have booked them in advance) and they end up with more work because they can be contacted via the site at anytime. Then when the complicated part of the meeting is done, switch back to the machine and the interpreter is paid instantly. That could reduce some companies’ need to have students learn a language if they only need it for this kind of scenario. To me that changes everything.

      1. Dear Editor,

        The problem is that ‘this changes everything’ has come to have no meaning at all in the days of Kickstarter sock campaigns and clickbait for videos of goats bouncing on bendy metal. All that being said, ‘this changes everything’ doesn’t have much meaning anyway – it just sounds excitable, at best. Translation software will never ‘change everything’. This is a niche product and your Hollywood epic adventure movie trailer treatment of it does it no good in the long run.

        This doesn’t change everything. It changes a small part of language needs in one scenario (the one you describe above). It doesn’t change everything for those without technology, nor for those without connectivity (still the majority worldwide). It doesn’t change everything for those wishing to converse in a human way – face-to-face, over a drink or some dinner, or perhaps in bed, or whatever.

        It may correspond to a small niche need, but it will not do away with the need for people to learn languages, because as soon as they’re out of the video conferencing room, away from the tech and the connectivity, they’re still going to need the skills to converse.

        I love the way you dig out interesting things to talk about, but let’s have some sanity, please. Let’s drop the hyperbole and look at things in the cold light of day.

        Gavin

  3. Forgive me if I’m underwhelmed by this gadget – isn’t this just a case of someone trying to exploit interpreters’ skills while undercutting market rates?

    1. I wouldn’t call it exploiting, rather liberating them from working for 12-14$ per hour. The interpreter’s will be getting 70% of the money we charge. We plan to charge around 2$ per minute for certified interpreters, which means they earn 1.40$ per minute aka 84$ per hour.

      Regarding the quality of machine translation: It’s good enough for everyday conversations but you should ask yourself if you would trust a machine doing contract negotiations or translating a consultation with a doctor if you know that the translation quality is below 90%?

      I don’t think that machine translation is going to replace human interpreters anytime soon. But it’s good that people talk about this subject because it shows how important translation & interpretation really are in our globalized society.

      1. Hi,Marcel. Couldn’t you just sell the interface/platform to interpreters as a stand-alone item that they can add to their toolboxes?
        You say that you will be liberating interpreters from agencies, but won’t you be just another agency? Surely true liberation would be when interpreters can connect directly with customers. Have you thought about aiming your product at professional interpreting bodies (Institute of Linguists et al)and dropping the free/voluntary translations(which will only keep rates low)?

        1. Hi Andrew,

          thank you for questions. Like I said before, we’re not an agency but a marketplace and also a technology provider. It is not in our interest to sell our technology to individual interpreters so that they can offer it to their existing clients. It also doesn’t make sense for us from a business perspective.

          The sole purpose of having this platform is that the interpreters can get access to an existing customer base and the customers access to a large talent pool of interpreters. It’s similar to the business model from odesk / upwork, freelancer.com etc, but specifically targeted at the interpreting industry.

          We are planning to offer our platform to lager companies but not to professional interpreting bodies at this stage.

  4. I’m not sure that using interpreters can equate with ‘real-time’ translation. There will still be the pauses, gaps, etc. as the brain computes (and slower than a computer). And, it will remain an expensive way of communicating – either for the customer when hiring the service, or the interpreter (if providing it for free). I agree with Gavin in that Microsoft have a definite edge. If they pull off efficient real-time machine translation, why would people pay for LinguSocial’s service? I suppose the analogy would be: would you use an Uber driver if there was a Google self-drive car available for free?

    The secondary question here – will the demand for language instruction be impacted by excellent free machine translation? – is a different issue. I don’t really know the answer to that.

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