Understanding French Dialects Critical For U.S. Soldiers In Africa

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Written by Staff

From ProductDesign&Development. Story by Dan Lafontaine.

U.S. soldiers conduct regular training and exercises in about 20 Africa countries, and a U.S. Army team is helping develop a language translator to improve communication with African soldiers.

“We believe Africa is a future frontier for technology in the next 10 to 15 years,” said Maj. Eddie Strimel, an advisor for Field Assistance in Science and Technology, or FAST, to U.S. Army Africa. “French is a priority for us. If we can get these dialects developed with this type of system, it will benefit the Army, Air Force and Marines down the road.”

Strimel helped test the SQ.410 Translation System, a handheld, rugged, two-way language translation system from a commercial vendor, VoxTec. The device is programmed with nine languages and does not require a cell network or Internet service to operate.

When a soldier speaks in English, the device will repeat what it recognizes and display it on the screen. The system then provides written and spoken translations in the other language. It can also record conversations.

Dr. Stephen LaRocca, a computer scientist at the Army Research Laboratory, provided technical expertise during testing.

“While commercial speech translation software is available for French, we know that it was trained for general purpose use by European speakers,” he said. “How well it works for communication tasks specific to U.S. teams working with African partners is just now being examined.

“From a scientific perspective, we need to know how sensitive the technology is to the different accents of the many diverse French-speaking African language communities.”

Further testing in the field is under way to determine how well the device works with soldiers from different African countries and regions. The U.S. Army will then be able to better determine what improvements are needed to the software.

Africa is just a beginning point, Strimel said. U.S. military commanders stationed around the world have shown an interest in language translation.

While more work is needed on the translation system, it has already begun to benefit American and African service members.

“While the FAST/U.S. Army Africa project will not answer all the important questions about adapting language technologies, it has already succeeded in advancing discussions of what our soldiers need to build rapport with their counterparts and to help them communicate across language barriers when human translators are not available,” Strimel said.

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