Escaping Monolingualism

Escaping Monolingualism

Audio translation websites and tools enhance language learning.

Odvard Egil DyrliGrowing up in a bilingual home near New York City, where my brother and I were the only ones who spoke Norwegian in our elementary school, I remember being asked to translate for newly-arrived Scandinavian students whose parents were assigned to the UN. Our school had no teaching resources in other languages back then, let alone in Norwegian, but I credit the staff for using local resources to get non-English speaking students off on the right foot (it may also have been my first teaching opportunity!).

Years later, I was amazed when I encountered websites such as Bing Translator (, and where anyone could essentially do the same work without knowing the language. For example, a click of a mouse at FreeTranslation will tell you that “How high is the moon?” in English is “Hvordan høy er månen?” in Norwegian. It will also translate web pages to and from more than 30 different languages, including French, German, and Spanish, but also Hausa, Hindi, and Urdu (try it out on the DA site

There are now more than 4 million English Language Learners (ELL) nationwide, representing more than 180 languages, so it is impossible for administrators to hire enough bilingual staff members and prepare programs to support all those diverse groups, and it is becoming essential to turn to technology. In fact, while it is easy to think of the internet as an American English-speaking phenomenon, this is far from reality, and the fastest-growing online languages are Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish, respectively. The search engines Google and Yahoo offer interfaces in scores of languages, which make it easier for “English as a second language” learners to use web resources and follow events in their native countries.

Evolving Language Tools

Language and translation tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated, such as proficiency solutions from Rosetta Stone, while the interest in audible technologies is exploding. More than two decades ago, researchers at Texas Instruments showed me the prototype of a device that would translate written text into speech in another language, but the device was too expensive to produce. However, online speaking translators, including are now common, and users are comfortable in exchanging information audibly with our automobiles, GPS devices, iPhones, and iPads, Droid Razr from Motorola, and Google’s Nexus smartphones and tablets. In this month’s “Online Edge” column on page 72, Will Richardson introduces us to exciting technology from Microsoft that translates spoken English to spoken Chinese.

Second-Language Learning

Although the internet is a multilingual and multinational community with unparalleled opportunities for educators and students to communicate and share resources across borders, the statistics on second-language learning in American schools are grim. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) found recently that only 18 percent of U.S. students were enrolled in foreign language courses, and 17 states are reporting declines. As a result, our students are essentially monolingual in a bilingual or multilingual world.

As Carla Thomas McClure points out in this month’s Research Center on page 68, a growing body of research suggests that studying second languages in K12 schools also boosts student achievement in other content areas. However, the Center for Applied Linguistics found that our national focus on mathematics and reading reduced the resources available for foreign language instruction. Therefore, with President Barack Obama’s education priorities in his second term of office, as discussed on page 27, it is time to reconsider the missed benefits.

Happy New Year!

Odvard Egil Dyrli

Executive Editor