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Asia’s state-sponsored plan to destroy the language barrier

Japan, Thailand and other Asian nations see modern technology as the future of translation.

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Chinese President Hu Jintao is helped by an aide to set up a headphone for translation as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh looks on. If a consortium of Asian nations have their way, machine translation will someday take the place of human translators. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGKOK — Attention, forward-thinking American parents forcing your children to learn Chinese: a consortium of Asian governments is pouring cash and brainpower into technology that might render your kids’ budding language prowess useless. And they want to give it away, for free, to anyone with a mobile phone signal.

With little fanfare, a league of linguists hailing from almost every sizable Asian nation has released an iPhone application called “U-STAR.” Their goal: disseminating technology that can ingest speech in any widely spoken language and regurgitate a translation on the spot.

“That’s the idea of U-STAR,” said Chai Wutiwiwatchai, head of a language lab at Thailand’s National Science and Technology Development Agency. “And it’s open source. Free of charge. No problems with intellectual property.”

The software is the culmination of seven years of research funded by more than 20 governments. Chai’s state-sponsored lab began building U-STAR with its Japanese counterpart, the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, in 2006. Institutes from 24 countries, including European nations, have since signed on. (The US isn’t one of them.)

Its buffet of languages include the major-league tongues — English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and Arabic — as well as Mongolian, Malay and Dzongkha, the native language of Bhutan.

In the Star Trek sagas, this sort of “universal translator” device isn’t invented until 2151. But U-STAR and its competitors — which include Google, Microsoft and a young US start-up called Jibbigo — aren’t waiting for the next century.

In the globalized information age, language remains a heavy shackle. Though we now have the ability to instantly zap communiques across the globe, the way we speak still reflects ancient geography: the rivers, hills and seas that isolated groups of humans and bred distinct languages.

This is particularly troublesome in Asia, a rising engine of global growth. The romance languages of Western Europe at least share root words and a common script. In South America, Spanish dominates. But Asia is so dense with varied languages and scripts that businessmen from neighboring countries often hammer out trade deals in their only shared tongue: choppy English.

In the future imagined by U-STAR’s designers, international travelers and traders will ditch hired translators and strained English for free smart phone software. Chai concedes that, for now, it’s highly prone to mistakes. “More research will make it more natural, more expressive,” he said. “Even at this stage, it’s useable.”

That depends on how "useable" is defined. A test drive of U-STAR, and warnings from the linguists behind the program, suggest that human translators may hold onto their jobs for a while yet.

Beyond simple situations, major flaws

Has U-STAR liberated us from the confines of language? No. In fact, that question, which I carefully read aloud into my iPhone’s U-STAR app, was interpreted as “Where is you star liberated is from the confidence of language?”

Translated into Thai — one of 28 available languages — the question comes out even weirder. The filtered response, to a native Thai speaker, sounds like the equivalent of “You come from Star Hotel? Where is your language?”

Though U-STAR knows roughly 20,000 words from many of its onboard languages, it tends to butcher small talk or college-level prose. The software is at its best when the speaker asks simple questions common among travelers. This is by design, Chai said.

“To make speech recognition accurate, you have to sculpt the vocabulary to the domain,” he said. (A “domain” is linguist-speak for a topic of conversation.) “To start off, we made sure every language could at least cover the basic domain of travel. You can’t use it to talk politics.”

Mileage also varies by language. English speech fares better with U-STAR because the language is beamed to servers in Japan, where a high-tech government language lab has gathered decades of English speech. Basic queries such as “When does the bus arrive?” or “I’ll have the pork, please” are usually rendered accurately.

So are short commands in Mandarin Chinese. I asked a native Mandarin speaker to say “I’m sick and I need to go to the hospital” as well as “This key doesn’t work. Can I have another one?” into U-STAR. After a delay of 10 seconds, it could spit out both phrases accurately and with Chinese script to boot.

“It does work when the domain