Travel Tech Review: Through A (Word) Lens, More Often Than Not

The number of people learning a foreign language online: 25 million.
The number of people learning a foreign language online: 25 million.


One of the most shocking numbers from analyst Mary Meeker’s recent state-of-the-internet report is 25 million. That’s the number of people using Duolingo to learn a second language.

Count me among them. I was seduced by the game-playing language-learning app about six months ago, and I’m halfway to my goal of learning French, a language I’ve wanted to learn since I was a child. (French will also come in handy when I make that big move up to our customer-service center, which really needs travel-insurance ambassadors who are fluent in French and English. We’re hirin’, gang.)

Many of Duolingo’s teaching phrases involve food, and in that regard, Duolingo certainly knows what side its pain is beurred on. However, over the last few weeks I’ve noticed my Duolingo exercises becoming significantly more difficult to master. It’s as if, to paraphrase the multilingual Florence + The Machine, Duolingo has decided the dog days are over for me and the real human-powered work has begun.

Because of this, and in an effort to keep my studies moving forward, I have resorted to some educational – ahem! – aids to assist me with my lessons. Of course, I’m referring to Google Translate.

So here’s how that works: I do my French lessons with an iPad while riding a stationary bike. I have the Duolingo app up and Google Translate on my browser. I answer a Duolingo question, and if I’m not sure whether I’m right, I use Google Translate to check my work.

Turns out I’m right about two-thirds of the time and Google Translate is right about one-quarter of a time. The remaining answers are simply wrong.

I learn a lot about structure and grammar by using Google Translate in conjunction with Duolingo, so it’s not really cheating – right? Right?

Duolingo remains a great asset to all prospective travelers, but even so, it’s just a prelude to the main focus of this piece, which I can’t tell you right now because I have to tell you a story first.

About a week ago my boss sent me an email titled “Word Lens” that read, “Let’s do a writeup on this app. Great for translation. Travelers can really benefit. Play around! Very cool.”

That was all I needed to see. I found the app on Google Play (yes!) and tried to think up applications for the application. Naturally, I settled on Duolingo.

Word Lens uses your smartphone camera to focus on words that appear anywhere – on a sign, on a menu, in a newspaper, on an iPad screen, inside an app called Duolingo – and then translates those words right before your eyes. It’s like having a magic magnifying lens that only reads the hidden messages, and it’s an “Aw wow!” moment watching it go through its paces.

But does it translate the right words? In order to find out, I did a three-way comparison: Word Lens vs. Google Translate vs. Duolingo.

The ulterior motive of this test was to see whether Word Lens could be a better cheat – er, educational aid – than Google Translate. The setup was simple: my iPad with Duolingo and Google Translate up and my phone with Word Lens rarin’ to go.

Duolingo involves solving several different types of puzzles. The most often-encountered puzzles require the player/learner to translate French into English from a presupplied word list, write the English translation of a written or spoken French phrase, write the French translation of an English phrase, or repeat a French phrase into a microphone.

Word Lens, with its ability to translate from French to English and English to French, would theoretically work on everything but the spoken phrases, but I decided to focus on its ability to translate French words into English.

Word Lens stresses that the direction of the phone needs to line up with the direction of the text. This is important, since the word that Word Lens “sees” changes as you tilt the phone.

I thought I was squaring up my phone pretty well with my iPad, but even small movements caused some big changes.

Word Lens usually saw the Duolingo sentence, “Elle a passé la nuit dehors” (“she must spend the night outside”) as “Ette has passwords your night outside,” though sometimes it would change to “She has past your night outside.”

The next one I tried was “Je suis venu pour dire que je m’en vais” (“I have come to tell you that I am leaving”). Google Translate saw it as “I have come to tell you that I go away” – close enough for me to tell whether my answer was right. Word Lens saw it as “I came that you say that I me in will.” That’s a really literal translation, and not contextual at all, which hints at Word Lens’ ultimate use.

We’ll get to that use in a moment, after two more examples. Word Lens saw “Ils sont allés en Amérique le mois dernier” (“They went to America last month”) as “Lily are donkeys in America you month” and “Je suis nè la” (“I was born there”) as “I am Baretta.” That’s gonna be news to Robert Blake.

As a hack for Duolingo, Word Lens is not the answer. It’s also not the answer if you’re looking to translate a newspaper article or a detailed description of a dish in a restaurant. But as a way to quickly translate a couple of words — that’s where the magic happens.

“Magic” is not too strong a word for what Word Lens does. It’s the most clever alternate use of technology since Jimi Hendrix discovered the wah-wah pedal. Word Lens is an astonishing testimony to the ingenuity of its engineers, because used appropriately this app is a word-changing world-changer.

After setting aside Duolingo I tried out Word Lens on some items sitting around my desk. Once I lined it up properly it flawlessly translated the individual words of Magnetic Poetry on my desk – no need for context there – and also accurately translated the bold headlines of a catalog that was on an adjacent desk.

On a road trip to the Swiss town of New Glarus, Wis., I tried Word Lens on the German words written on the wall of the tavern where we were having lunch. I thought I knew what it said, but I used Word Lens just to double-check. Sure enough, it said, “Time stops when you’re having fun,” so I stayed there another three hours. At least, I think it was three hours.

Back at the office, someone from the IT Help Desk watched me put Word Lens through its paces. “Wow; that’s so cool,” he said, and promptly got the app for himself.

Cool as it is in its current context, a smartphone’s not the ultimate application for Word Lens’ looking-glass magic. In Google Glass the magic might be overwhelming. It could literally transform the way you look at the world.

Maybe that’s why Google just bought the company that makes Word Lens, and made the app available on Glass. You don’t need a magic word-changing mirror to translate that, or to understand what an amazing thing that could be — in any language.

Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.