Learning a new language can be useful for business, a foreign vacation or as a fun hobby, while learning about a different culture and our own language in the process.
But if you’re not an enrolled student, in high school or college, the best options you usually have are phrasebooks or Berlitz tapes.
Guatemalan computer scientist Luis von Ahn has been developing an interesting and innovative solution with a small team since last year.
Last month they opened the website http://www.duolingo.com to the public.
Once signed up for the free site, users complete lessons in reading, writing and speaking to build proficiency, and then a way to use those skills.
Following a lesson, users are offered web pages that they translate, sentence by sentence, like a homework assignment.
After submitting a translation, the site tells you how close to other users your answer is and then shows answers submitted by other users that you can rate as bad, good or very good and suggest edits.
Less than an hour after signing up, I was translating the Wikipedia page for the German composer Robert Schumann.
von Ahn has said his goal with the site is not only to help people learn languages, but also to eventually translate the entire Internet into every major language.
They currently offer Spanish, German and French for English speakers, and English for Spanish speakers. von Ahn said recently that he hoped to add Portuguese and Chinese by the end of the year, with Japanese and Italian down the line.
One of my favorite parts of this whole idea is that it is not another free Internet utility, like Facebook or Youtube. By getting what you need or want out of the website, you are actually working for it, working with hundreds of thousands of others for the collective benefit of humanity.
Many industry analysis-types are watching to see if Google will make a move to acquire the company, just three years after they bought von Ahn’s last venture, reCAPTCHA.
Google has already expressed an interest in translation in the past.
In 2010 Google's head of translation services, Franz Och said that “we think speech-to-speech translation should be possible and work reasonably well in a few years’ time.”
That means that, possibly by 2017, you could have a phone conversation with a person who is speaking Chinese; you would hear what they said translated into English and the other person would hear your English translated into Chinese.
Almost any person on the planet could talk to any other person without the language barriers that have divided us for as long as we’ve known.
At the very least you’d be able to understand what French people are mocking you for behind your stupid American back.
Another little piece of sci-fi wonder that already exists is an app called Word Lens, that was first released in 2010.
With Word Lens, you can point your phone’s camera at anything with words on it — a book, a menu, a road sign — and your screen will show the object with the words translated.
The free app started translating back and forth between English and Spanish, but has since added French and Italian, all available in $5 language packs.
Not only is the Internet bringing more people together than ever, but it seems a growing number of people are interested in having as many of those people understand each other as possible.
If, as one people speaking the same language, Internet users have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. And that’s awesome.
(Zach White is a reporter for the Havre Daily News.)