This app is both my dream and my nightmare. I love learning languages, and anything that enables me to understand and communicate in more of them is a fantastic tool. On the other hand, if tools like this get too good, my life’s work (as a creator of English language courses and resources) – and my future income – will be wiped out with a few swipes of a touchscreen.
Slated is a translating keyboard extension for iOS 8 by Gist LLC. Its simple (and not particularly informative) website presents it as the perfect way to impress foreigners by flirting with them in their native language. This amused me because it chimes with my pet theory that humans will stop learning each other’s languages once translation software becomes sophisticated enough that we can have successful romantic relationships with others despite not speaking the same language as them.
Imagine it: those clunky Google glasses replaced by a stylish ear clip or wristband which simultaneously translates every sweet nothing your holiday crush whispers into your ear. Bye bye verb tables and parlez-vous français: bonjour mon amour! You think I’m joking? Companies like Translate Your World are already melding voice recognition software and audio data sets to form a serious simultaneous translation tool for business. The results are clunky – you wouldn’t use it as a seduction aid – but it’s surely only a matter of time before these tools get significantly better, significantly smaller and more portable.
But in the meantime, at £2.99, Slated is a relatively cheap way to start text messaging your friends in other languages – 80 in total. The installation process is a little confusing, and I spent a good 10 minutes figuring out how to get it to work. It needs to be installed as a separate keyboard, and as I already have English, Norwegian, French and Spanish keyboard installed, that meant I had to cycle through these in order to get to the Slated keyboard.
Once it’s set up, you can select from the list of available languages and then start typing your SMS, iMessage, Facebook chat and so on as normal. The translator then does its thing (provided that you are connected to the internet). You can see your text being translated in real time in another field below the original version.
Here’s where I hit the first snag. Once you’ve typed your message and seen the translation, your overriding instinct is to hit the Send button, but this just sends the English version – you need to remember to tap the translation to move it into the correct field. Not such a big issue once you get used to the interface but I forgot time and time again, and became frustrated that my neat little translations weren’t going anywhere and my interlocutors were receiving messages in boring old English!
I also found the app extremely buggy – sometimes it wouldn’t translate anything, sometimes it froze, sometimes it would translate one sentence but not another. Fairly standard behaviour from a new release app, but with a price tag of £2.99, I’d have expected them to release something a little more well-developed. Hopefully future updates will smooth over these initial problems.
Another issue for me is that the iPhone’s autocorrect function was disabled while I was using the Slated keyboard, and for someone with clumsy fingers like me this is a disaster, as around 50% of the words I type need to be autocorrected.
I tested it with five different languages: Hindi, Japanese, Russian, Tagalog and Norwegian. With the first four, I tried it with native speakers or near-fluent speakers of the languages, and in each case they were very impressed with the results. I sent them quite convoluted messages ‘the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’, and although they didn’t recognise this common English phrase they were able (mostly) to translate it as it was written. With Norwegian I judged the translations against my own intermediate understanding and found them to be pretty much what I had predicted. Translating back from the target language to English was a little less successful, at least with Tagalog, and there were a few exchanges which left me baffled.
The main thing to note about Slated is that it is ‘powered by’ Google Translate. In other words, it’s a wrapper which runs a live search through Google Translate every time you use it. Now Google Translate is easily my most used language app. I have it open as a tab on my browser all day every day, and use it to translate between multiple languages as I go about my work and studies. It’s distinctly better at translating between certain languages than others, but it’s generally possible to get the gist of any piece of text, and in many cases (especially with simple sentences), a fairly accurate translation.
Google Translate works by running searches of its own and detecting patterns in documents it finds online. Its disadvantages are the ones you would expect – it’s better at translating written language than speech, and it can give literal translations when meaning is ambiguous. That said, it’s a fantastic tool (provided you speak one of the 81 languages it features), and I barely go more than a few hours in a day without turning to it.
Which brings me to my main issue with Slated; when you compare it to Google Translate, it isn’t adding much in terms of functionality. In fact, I’d argue that it’s actually significantly harder to use. If I’m chatting to a Norwegian friend on Facebook or What’s App and I’m not 100% sure of the correct way to say what I want, I’ll cut and paste the text into my Google Translate app, check the result and then cut and paste the translation back into the original conversation. Provided I’m online, the process is extremely quick, whereas with Slated the process takes longer because I need to first select the right keyboard and then compensate for the buggy performance. That said, I’ve only been using it for a week, and if I were using it to communicate regularly, no doubt I would get much faster with it.
Overall verdict? If you communicate regularly via text chat with someone who speaks another language, this is going to be a very helpful app for you. For the rest of us, the Google Translate app (which is free) does a mighty fine job already. And as far as serious simultaneous translation goes, us language teachers still have a job… for now.
Kirsten has been teaching and creating courses and materials for ELT for nearly 15 years. She has written textbooks for Harper Collins, created a best-selling ELT videogame for Pearson, and is currently Head of Learning for EduMe, a startup which creates mobile learning apps for Africa and Latin America.