Instant translator

A member of Amherst College’s information technology department and two faculty colleagues have developed an instant-messenger (IM) computer program that enables students to have their queries about various foreign languages answered online.

The tool, called LangBot, operates as a human IM ‘buddy’ would, although it is faster. In operation, it searches various language websites and a specially developed corpus of language and responds with answers.

For example, when a user types in ‘what is the word for tree in German?’, LangBot replies with ‘baum’, along with several other terms, almost instantaneously.

Amherst College’s director of academic technology services Scott Payne is collaborating with Weijia Li, a senior lecturer in Chinese at Amherst and Luiz Amaral, assistant professor of Hispanic linguistics at the University of Massachusetts, to build the program.

He claims that it offers users a host of other valuable information in addition to simple translation. Among other things, it provides examples of words or phrases in context, feedback on spelling and grammatical errors in sentences and automatically generated, individualised vocabulary tests.

What’s more, the tool adjusts to the skills, knowledge and learning curve of users, and tracks and maps the development of their vocabulary over time.

Payne and his collaborators hope that LangBot’s use of IM technology – a technology all too familiar to current college-age learners – will make it that much more effective as a resource.

Although the program is still only in its beta stage, LangBot recently received an endorsement in the form of a three-year, $221,000 (£132,563) grant from the US Department of Education’s International Research and Studies Program. The funding will enable the team to continue work on the program and eventually test it on the Amherst campus, possibly next autumn.

In the meantime, Payne and his colleagues are working to add other languages to the program’s repertoire with an eye to one day rolling it out to other colleges and universities or any IM user.