As a bilingual education teacher at Barrington Elementary School, Ray Mata knows a thing or two about language barriers.

Like many of his colleagues in the Austin, Texas, Independent School District, where more than half of the school system’s 82,000 students are Hispanic and at least 20 percent do not speak English as their native language, Mata is constantly looking for new approaches to get his students on par with their English-speaking classmates.

So when he found a free technology program that would let his students–and, importantly, their parents–translate English web sites into Spanish automatically and even send and receive translated eMail messages to teachers and friends throughout the school system, he just had to try it.

Several months later, Mata says he’s using the program to show English-language learners how to conduct online research, better engage parents in their children’s education, and encourage ESL students to share their language–and their heritage–with their English-speaking friends.

The project is part of a nationwide grant program sponsored by IBM that gives schools and other nonprofit organizations free access to a specialized version of the company’s WebSphere Translation Server, a service that helps multinational businesses convert web sites and eMail messages from English to several other languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Brazilian Portuguese, and vice versa.

Called Traducelo Ahora!, or “translate now,” the version currently being used in schools is limited to English-Spanish conversions. Program developers say the goal is to help teachers, as well as students and their parents, bridge a burgeoning cultural divide that often stands in way of success.

“We are trying to inspire the conversation between Spanish-speaking students and English-speaking teachers,” said Doris Gonzalez, program coordinator for IBM’s Traducelo Ahora! project. As the Spanish-speaking population continues to grow–researchers predict that within the next few years, the Latino population will be the nation’s largest minority–teachers must find a way to connect not only with students who have a limited grasp of English, but with their parents as well, Gonzales said.

As the program has evolved, IBM has invested a significant amount of research and development dollars into its translation engine. Three years and some serious tweaking later, Big Blue says the Spanish-English version of the program is up to 30 percent more accurate than it was when it first launched in 2003.

Despite all the extra work, the technology still is far from perfect, Gonzalez acknowledges. Because each form of Spanish–whether it’s Mexican, Salvadorian, Guatemalan, or some other regional translation–has its own unique dialect, IBM uses what it calls “International Spanish” as its default translation.

Though the conversions might not be exact in all cases, depending on what type of Spanish the user is accustomed to, it usually is close enough for a competent Spanish-speaking person to make the connection, Gonzalez said.

If there are major gaps in the translation, or portions of a web site are not translated correctly, participants are invited to point out inconsistencies by eMailing IBM software developers. The company reportedly gets upwards of 125 eMails from Traducelo Ahora! users each month and considers each suggestion on an individual basis.

There are other technological hang-ups, too. Gonzalez says the program still cannot automatically translate text and pictures featured on web pages as part of Flash images or PDF files. Rather than seeing these translations reflected automatically, as is the case with pages using strictly HTML code, she said, the user has to scroll over the English words and look for the Spanish translation in a separate pop-up box.

“We’re still working on that,” she said.

Though it remains very much a work in progress, Mata said Traducelo Ahora! already is keeping communication in Austin from getting lost in translation.

Where language barriers often preclude talented minority voices from assuming leadership positions within their local communities or keep parents from taking a more active role in their children’s education, he says, programs like Traducelo Ahora! are empowering the school system’s Hispanic population to take a more active role.

“It’s amazing how often language barriers keep people from reaching their potential,” said Mata.

IBM says Traducelo Ahora! currently is used at 160 grant sites in the U.S., Mexico, and Venezuela. Though the original grant program is now closed, IBM spokesman Clint Roswell said schools are encouraged to contact the company. IBM will reach out to interested applicants when the grant program reopens in the coming months, he said.

Links:

Traducelo Ahora!