On the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Capt. Kirk looked over at Mr. Spock and said, “Spock,
as we travel to places where no man has gone before, how do we intend to communicate with alien life?”
Spock replied coolly, “Don’t worry, Captain. The USS Enterprise and all her crew are equipped with universal language translation devices.”
Science fiction often caricatures and anticipates reality, and the fact is that the challenge of being understood is more relevant than ever. How do we plan to communicate across the globe—or even across the counter—with someone whose language is foreign to our own? As we strike out into our own unknown future, let’s examine challenges in communication and the use of language translation technology.
The problem of communication between people who speak different languages is not new. When humans first began speaking, they had difficulty communicating with the tribe just over the hill, and different dialects grew into foreign languages. Throughout the world today, there are more than 6,000 languages spoken. Closer to home, 60.5% of persons over the age of five in California speak English only, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The remainder speak languages other than, or in addition to, English. Other states have similar statistics.
Language barriers present a unique problem for law enforcement. Law officers must effectively communicate with a suspect or a victim of a crime. Commands given to a suspect being taken into custody can be as important as getting vital information from a victim, and a split-second hesitation by either party for any reason can prove tragic. A case in California exemplifies the scope of the challenge facing police.
No Hablo Inglés
The Redding Police Department (RPD) serves a mid-size community of about 90,000 residents in Northern California. Around 90% of those residents are white; approximately 3% are black, 3% Southeast Asian and 3% Hispanic. Less than 1% of the city’s residents speak no English.
In 2006, the RPD responded to a domestic violence incident. The husband and wife were Hispanic and neither spoke English. Two police officers responded, both quickly discovering they had a language barrier with the involved parties, and there were no bilingual officers available to assist with the translation. The officers recruited the services of a bilingual neighbor to help translate what had occurred. Based on the neighbor’s interpretation, the officers concluded that the wife was the primary aggressor, and she was arrested for spousal abuse.
A few days later, a local Hispanic organization contacted the department. Based on information they’d obtained from witnesses and neighbors on scene, they asserted the account of the incident was incorrect. The department assigned a bilingual officer to reinvestigate the arrest. The result of this work determined that, in fact, the husband was the primary aggressor. He was arrested, and the wife was set free.
Although it didn’t make headline news and the mistake was quickly corrected, it’s a compelling example of how a breakdown in communication hinders law enforcement. The RPD changed its policy to prevent a similar situation in the future. A professional translator is now required when a language barrier exists in a domestic violence investigation. In addition to the policy change, the department could consider additional courses of action, such as increasing staff language competency or exploring emerging technologies in language translation to allow officers to “speak” quickly to almost any person they encounter.
Seeking the assistance of a bilingual friend or family member is a common method law officers use in the field to translate a foreign language. However, the RPD’s example illustrates the potential problems associated with relying solely on these resources. There may be conflicts of interest, and family members are often too close to the situation to be reliable translators. Officers frequently find that these translations are slanted or misrepresented to benefit one party over another.
In an effort to address the language translation issue, the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) authorized a learning domain to be taught at basic police academies. The intent is to teach police and law enforcement cadets basic Spanish in an effort to help them perform the field functions required of a police officer when in contact with Spanish-speaking individuals. This training has been instituted at the California Highway Patrol’s (CHP) Academy. Several major law enforcement agencies in Southern California have also implemented the training, including the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office. Many agencies also utilize Spanish translation handbooks and on-call translators to improve communication with the non-English speaking population. In another attempt to address the language barrier issue, some law enforcement dispatch centers provide on-call translation services.
The training of all law enforcement officers in a specific foreign language has some benefits. In California, POST chose Spanish, because it’s the most common foreign language in the state. However, there are many foreign languages spoken in California—224 in Los Angeles alone. Realistically, law enforcement is limited to learning the most prevalent languages, and without constant use, language skills decline. One RPD officer, who completed the CHP language class in Spanish during his basic academy in 2002, reports limited recall of the language skills he learned because he’s assigned to an area where Spanish is not frequently spoken.
Due to the diversity of the population and the limitations inherent in language training, an alternative course of action is to examine the use of a language translation device in the field.
Voice Translation Technologies
Voice recognition systems are now commonplace. Credit card companies and banks, among other industries, use voice recognition commands to lead customers to a variety of services. With the Internet, the translation of the written word from one language to another is becoming commonplace. Technology is also emerging in the area of home translation systems for your personal computer.
Available now from Lingo Corp. are several portable language translator models. Since the 1990s, Lingo has developed language translation devices for travelers and vacationers.
Ectaco Co. also offers several versions of a language translator, including a law enforcement model, the SpeechGuard PD5. It stores key words and phrases in 25 languages in its memory and can be accessed by manually or by voice command. (For more options, see sidebar below.)
In 2004, NEC started work on a handheld device that would enable users to chat with people who speak different languages without having to learn the words and phrases for themselves. This system is about the size of a handheld PDA and converts spoken Japanese to English and vice versa. The device consists of three components—a speech recognition engine, translation software and a voice generator. Spoken English or Japanese is recognized and converted into text by the speech recognition engine. The text is then converted from Japanese into English, or the other way around, via translation software, and a voice synthesizer vocalizes the resulting text. The company believes that it will be possible in the next few years to create a translator for mobile phones.
The U.S. military is developing a similar device. The Army is testing a portable translator device that soldiers would use in the field during wartime and for peace-keeping duties. The “MASTOR” (Multilingual Automatic Speech to Speech Translator) is an IBM software-driven device provided to military forces in Iraq in 2006. It provides English-to-Arabic translation and is aimed at improving communication between military personnel and Iraqi forces and citizens.
The British military is testing a device called “AHKY,” which utilizes a different approach. The device is programmed with 10 key words and phrases. When the operator speaks the key word or phrase, the device recognizes the phrase and translates it immediately into Arabic. This primitive translation device is currently being used with limited applications.
In the late 1990s, the National Institute of Justice began testing voice response translator technology. The Institute is currently sponsoring several U.S. law enforcement agencies, including the Oakland (Calif.) Police Department, the Nashville (Tenn.) Police Department and the West Palm Beach (Fla.) Police Department, in testing prototypes of a voice response translator. If the trials prove successful, first responders everywhere could use these devices to give and receive basic information to non-English speaking persons in a variety of situations.
In 2007, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) began using translation devices in the field. As reported in the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 16, 2008, the LAPD’s “Phraselator” utilizes MP3 technology to access prerecorded words and phrases from an English word screen or from a voice command. The Phraselator allows officers to communicate, by translating certain words and phrases, to all 224 languages spoken in the Los Angeles city limits.
American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have also used this device, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The LAPD bought four of the $2,500 devices, which look like heavy-duty PalmPilots. Although far from reaching every officer in the field, this may be an indication of the utility of such devices.
LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Hillmann noted that the Phraselators have already demonstrated their value to the department. “The ability for public safety agencies to communicate with various cultures is critical,” Hillmann said. “The Phraselator has been useful in assisting with crowd management operations.”
Although the LAPD seems to be taking the lead, the widespread use of a translation device across California remains to be seen, especially in small to mid-size agencies where funding is limited.
Speech Recognition & Translation Systems
The following Web sites offer insight and solutions in speech recognition and translation technology:
With technology advancing and costs coming down, the development of a mainstream foreign language translator or a universal translator may be in the foreseeable future. Although word-to-word translation can be achieved through such a device, interpretation of the spoken word remains an important issue. It will be some time before a language translator can properly interpret the subtle nuances of language and the meaning of tone behind words.
Law enforcement officers must continue to work closely with their communities to break down cultural barriers caused by language differences. In Redding, the police department’s relationship with diverse community groups proves key to resolving concerns when they arise. Through monthly meetings and joint participation at community events, the department maintains an open dialogue to minimize miscommunications and misunderstandings in such situations as the domestic violence case described earlier. As technological options for communication enter the mainstream, it’s critical for managers to emphasize that technology can never replace the human connections that bridge communication between cultures.
This journal article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes (www.post.ca.gov/training/cc/). The views and conclusions expressed in the Command College Futures Project and this article are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards & Training (POST).