Springboard for Talent - Humanizing Language Learning Through Technology





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Jan 12, 2018
by Louise Hallman
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Springboard for Talent - Humanizing Language Learning Through Technology

Microsoft Education Leader demonstrates how technological tools can be used to bridge language barriers Microsoft's Mark Sparvell presents at Salzburg Global Seminar session on multilingualism

“Technology [in the classroom] should humanize learning, not just digitize the curriculum,” insists Mark Sparvell, education leader at tech giant Microsoft.

Sparvell offered Fellows a multitude of technological tools to do just this as part of a presentation on “Humanizing language experiences – the promising role of new technologies” at the session, Springboard for Talent: Language Learning and Integration in a Globalized World in December.

The first tool to wow his audience was the Microsoft Translator app. Via either the website translator.microsoft.com or the smartphone app, Fellows were able to read a translation of Sparvell’s presentation in real time in one of 11 languages. Microsoft currently offers text-to-text translation for 60 languages with more to be added to the speech-to-text service used in Salzburg. Microsoft’s VoIP service, Skype, also offers real-time speech-to-speech translations in eight languages with more than 50 supported text-to-text in instant messaging.

While Sparvell readily admits that current digital translation services are by no means “perfect” he rightly points out that “they offer a means of understanding” that might not otherwise be possible.

These services can be used to help facilitate cultural exchanges between students across the world (as demonstrated by Microsoft’s annual “Skype-a-Thon” which connected half a million students in 48 hours in 2017), but also aid better understanding with parents from immigrant communities. 

As another Fellow shared, her Japanese immigrant mother was intimidated by language barriers when the family moved to English-speaking Canada, hindering her ability to engage with her daughter’s school teachers and resulting in her being mislabeled as a disinterested parent. While many schools cannot afford to hire professional translation services for events such as large-scale parents’ meetings or one-on-one parent-teacher conferences, especially in diverse multilingual communities, where there is not just one dominant foreign language,  using a free tool such as Microsoft’s real-time translator, while imperfect, could help parents overcome such language barriers.

Digital translation tools are improving rapidly thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning. However, as Sparvell points out, “tech is a tool,” much like a fork, a spade or a digger, and tools can enable us to do things at greater scale, but tools still need some human initiation and guidance.

But not everyone has access to the same tools. “Is tech breaking down barriers or just putting up more?” one Fellow asked. Software can be given away for free (as was the case for all the tools demonstrated in Salzburg), but if schools do not have reliable hardware, electricity or Internet access that free software is not useful.

Recognizing this injustice, many large corporations, including Microsoft, are engaging in philanthropic ventures to offer hardware to schools, improve national electric grid access and stability, and roll out mobile and broadband internet. This is not a purely philanthropic gesture: “Education is everybody’s business.” 

Useful links:

OneNote in the Foreign Language Classroom

Talking with Multilingual Parents with Translator App 

Introducing Microsoft Translator [video]

Using Translator for parent teacher interviews [video]

Live Translate with Skype [video]

The session, Springboard for Talent: Language Learning and Integration in a Globalized World is part of Salzburg Global Seminar multi-year series  Education for Tomorrow’s World. The session is being held in partnership with ETS, the Qatar Foundation and Microsoft. This project was also supported by The Erste Foundation. To keep up to date with the conversations taking place during the session, follow #SGSedu on Twitter and Instagram.