American school adopts new automatic translation system for parent messages
A school in South Dakota has turned to automatic text-to-speech translation to deliver messages to parents who do not speak English as a first language. Due to rolled out in the 2010–2011 school year, AlertNow is a multilingual service that looks set to become an indispensable communication aid for parents and teachers alike.
AlertNow provides audio services in 20 different languages and an email communication facility powered by automatic translation in five languages. The school currently uses a monolingual messaging system in English and in the past, translators and interpreters had been used to provide selected messages in Spanish. However, with a student population that includes more than 50 languages other than English that are spoken in the family home, the time had come to improve the school’s linguistic services.
The new system covers 20 languages, including Chinese, Russian and Spanish, and new languages are added on a yearly basis. Households choose a language preference from the list available and there is also a ‘multilingual automated attendance’ feature.
However, The Argus Leader website reports that not all language barriers will be overcome: three of the five most popular languages (Arabic, Somali and Swahili) will not be available; and as the system generates alerts using automatic translation, the school has readily admitted that these messages will be ‘literal’ and may not ‘make perfect sense’ to the recipient.
The pitfalls of automatic translation are well documented, but in emergency situations (the article cites the example of when a school lockdown was necessary following reports of a person carrying a gun outside a local school) machine translation is often the only option and ultimately better than no translation at all. And in a sector where funds are tight and interpreters are not always readily available, any improvements in multilingual communication are sure to be a welcome addition to the school community.
AlertNow allows schools to increase their language provisions, and enables parents whose first language is not English to be further included in their child’s education. The accuracy of the translations will improve with prolonged use and feedback, and with additional languages being added in the future, this is certainly a step in the right direction for multilingual communication in the education sector.