Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, it is easy to find fault with what we don’t have. Books, movies and TV told us that we’d be taking vacations to the moon by now, and that there would be all sorts of great inventions to make life easier. The stories told us that there would be space stations circling high above, and that we’d have robots cleaning our houses. OK, the last part is sort of true thanks the iRobot Roomba, which I’ve tested and found that it does a decent job (but it won’t replace my Dyson anytime soon). The trips to the moon and the space stations will have to wait.
However, what is a bigger disappointment is that communication is still difficult, more so than the best sci-fi writers could have predicted. I’m not talking about making calls from exotic and far off lands; no, that has been made all the easier thanks to mobile phones, Voice Over IP and other technology. Sending an e-mail or making a phone call is easy enough.
What still remains a problem is the language barrier, and despite some promise, it still has yet to be resolved. What do you do when you can’t be understood and can’t understand anyone around you? Books and later TV shows, notably Star Trek, have promised a future where “universal translators” allow anyone (anything) to communicate without needing to actually learn another language. For the record, the still to-date-fictional technology was first described in Murray Leinster’s 1945 novella “First Contact,” which told of communication with an alien civilization. The book doesn’t exactly describe the technology, but it did paint a clear picture of what the technology would mean. It is hard to have an understanding with aliens or even fellow humans if you can’t understand them.
But that future is still as far away as warp speed and transporters. For now we’re reduced to actually learning a foreign language, but here technology has really started to help. As I prepare for my research trip this coming September I’m finding that Rosetta Stone is actually a good way to go, and it has helped me quickly learn a few basics with Arabic. I’m hoping that in the future this program will find its way to true mobile phone app.
For now there are a few apps out there, such as Mobile Translator for the iPhone an iPod Touch. It is available for download from the Apple App Store for just about $5, and it can help you translate phrases in about 40 or so languages. But this is about as helpful as a phrase book. That’s not to say these aren’t useful, but let’s face it, using one is a crutch, as you don’t actually “learn” the language by using a few phrases. It might allow you to ask questions or say a phrase, but try using it to carry on a conversation, and phrase books and phrase translators break down faster than a sci-fi villain’s master plan.