Since my school days of learning French and German, it's one of my biggest regrets that I didn't keep it up. So don't get me wrong - I think the concept of earbuds capable of translating languages in a real-time is a great thing.
I've had a couple of attempts at learning Spanish and Portuguese to aid my trips abroad since then and with apps like Babbel and Duolingo, it doesn't take long to start getting to grips with basic conversations. But after a few weeks or post-holiday, I quickly lose interest and I'm back to square one. There's still something very rewarding about learning a new language and going to countries knowing that you've made the effort without expecting everyone to just understand English.
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But I'm almost admitting defeat that learning a new language is not going to happen right now. That's where translation hearables come into play. The idea that I never need to go through another audio lesson or learn phrases on an app is really appealing. Just let the tech do the work. Except, I'm not entirely convinced that the solutions that are available now are what I want or work how I'd want them to work.
Last week, I was in Barcelona for MWC. I can speak some basic Spanish to negotiate my way around ordering food, asking a taxi driver to take me somewhere while pointing to an address on Google Maps and asking for a receipt afterwards. It felt like the perfect example to test out a translation hearable like the Bragi Dash Pro I thought. But I hesitated. Do I really want to turn to my taxi driver, point to an earbud and try to explain that this is going to make it easier for us to have a conversation? The same for when I'm in a restaurant trying to order food. Unless I was planning to carry around a tub of alcohol wipes, it wasn't going to happen.
And is this the crux of my problem with the whole idea. Do I really want to hand over my earbuds to a complete stranger? Does anyone? And it made me start to think about the scenarios where I would truly find them useful. Maybe interviewing someone for work or communicating with someone I do know at least a bit. It reminds me of a conversation I had with Harman's vice president of wearables Jessica Garvey last year. We got onto the topic of translation and wearables and she had similar feelings to the idea as me. "Does it make sense to have an earbud? Would you share two earbuds with a stranger?" she said. Garvey felt it was an interesting approach but also felt there was another experience that could offer a better solution.
Which also brings me to startup Lingmo which this week announced a smartwatch that translates languages in real-time. The startup actually launched a translation earpiece last year, but some of the feedback it had on that wearable was that not everyone was a fan of the approach. It didn't expand on details of that feedback, but I imagine some people who used it felt the same way as me. I don't like the idea of going all Dick Tracy and talking to my smartwatch, but maybe if it was someone else doing it, it might make more sense and I'd feel less self conscious about the situation. There needs to be solution to that 'do I want to give this to a stranger?' aspect.
I don't know if a smartwatch or perhaps some sort of wearable speaker is definitely the answer I'm looking for. I just know that there needs to be some further push to make translation hearables the ideal solution to break down language barriers when we really need it. There's something missing, a certain je ne sais quoi.
Translation hearables are certainly a great starting point and I'm glad they are here. Now it's about finessing the idea and making sure I never have to rely on a combination of English, broken Spanish and exaggerated expressions ever again.
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