“For younger travelers especially, the days of printed phrase and point-it books are over,” said Joss Moorkens, an assistant professor at the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies at Dublin City University. “That is significant: As people become more familiar with mobile translation tools, they are more likely to be willing to engage with visitors despite the lack of a common language.”
That, certainly, is the Google vision of what its app can do. Ms. Cattiau said the company’s “ambition and vision is breaking language barriers for people in many different ways,” and in many different contexts, not simply tourism. Some 95 percent of Google Translate users are outside the United States, often in multilingual countries such as India and Indonesia.
That remains some distance off. “It is a continuous process to get as close to human-quality translation as possible,” Ms. Cattiau said. Her team focuses not just on making sure the app is as accurate as it can be, but also on improving its ease of use. “We want people to be able to talk as naturally and seamlessly as possible,” she said.
At the moment, that has led to a conversation function — enabling two people to exchange sentences on one platform — but may, in the future, be driven by devices like headsets or earbuds, reducing the need to break the flow of a conversation by passing a phone back and forth.
For the time being, Dr. Moorkens said, translation apps in general are best used “in informal, low-risk situations, where errors can hopefully be laughed off.” The ultimate standard, he said, would be met when they can be used in a “doctor-patient scenario.”
As the programs improve, though, they will likely become more widespread, more familiar. That will, inevitably, make travel easier, but it also may have an effect on what we learn. It could, for example, reduce the need to learn languages, though Ms. Cattiau was quick to point out that is not a consequence Google intends, or encourages.