Sometimes you don’t realize what you’ve been missing out on until it finally happens. For me, it was hearing my Chinese mother tell me she loved me for the first time. I was 39 years old.
A language translation app helped make that possible.
It happened earlier this year while my mother was walking my daughter and me to our car after we had spent the day at her house. My toddler told her, “I love you.” She replied with the same words. She paused, and while smiling at my daughter, told her, “I love your mommy, too.”
My ears perked up. I was too surprised to even respond or look up. It’s not that I’ve ever doubted that my mother loves me. She shows me in myriad ways: through sacrifices, support, and copious amounts of home-cooked meals.
It seemed to be more of a cultural taboo, in which the words “I love you” felt too formal and vulnerable, so they were never uttered. It felt novel and heartwarming when she said it about me, especially since it was in English.
I’ve always had a language barrier with my parents. They came to the United States as refugees and I was their first American-born child. We speak with each other in our mother tongue, a Chinese dialect called Teochew. My Teochew is fluent enough for conversations, but I lack the vocabulary to express complex emotions or make cohesive arguments about, let’s say, politics. Their English is even more rudimentary.
Communication gradually changed between us when they started texting with me in Chinese a couple of years ago. I wrote them back in the same language using Google Translate. Eventually, I started translating heartfelt messages I wanted to include in greeting cards, words I didn’t feel comfortable saying aloud.
“Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad! I love you!” a message would read. I’d later see the cards taped to my parents’ wall of family photos and mementos.
A few months ago, after a tearful argument I had with my mother, I calmed down, opened my app, and typed in the words, “I’m sorry.” I copied and pasted the Chinese translation into a text message to her.
The next day, she called me on the phone and said “I’m sorry” in English. It was the first time she said that to me—and those words were powerful. It felt poignant that we both articulated the most difficult-to-say things in the languages we both weren’t fluent in—and that a translation app helped open the doors to that.
When I told this story to Jon May, an expert in machine translation and research associate professor at the University of Southern California, he found the situation to be more of a cultural barrier, rather than a translation issue. “The taboo kind of breaks down if you switch languages, like it stops being such a strong thing,” he says.
As I spoke with May and other experts about using translation apps as a way to bridge language-barrier gaps with my family, I learned new ways of thinking and how to go about it.
First, let go of perfection. Clinical psychologist Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler says trying is the first step. “You can usually stumble through and get the gist of what they’re saying—and that so much better, right? It’s good enough. An attempt—broken and grammatically incorrect—is better than nothing.”
Part of letting go is the understanding from both parties that you’re all trying to bridge a gap, and there needs to be patience. “That bridge is not going to be perfect the first time that we do it, that it’s going to take time for us to have that sort of shared meaning in terms of what we’re saying,” says Dana Nakano, associate professor of sociology at California State University, Stanislaus.
He adds that we are easygoing with children when they try to learn a language, and we’re understanding when they make errors, but that we should also be more forgiving of ourselves as adults and embrace the imperfect nature of learning a new one.
Second, remember that communicating across languages, even when aided by technology, is a process. You have to work with your specific situation. When dealing with familial communication, there may already be some levels of language comprehension in place. “If you have some Chinese language ability, and your parents have some English language ability—in that hypothetical sense—how do you mishmash it?” Nakano says.
It became apparent to me that my mother and I were using the app in different ways to communicate with each other. Sometimes, we’d read or play translations of phrases to fill in our gaps of knowledge; other times, we’d send each other entire paragraphs of text. As my vocabulary grew, I began feeling less cagey about using emotional words I previously felt uncomfortable saying to her.
As part of the process, May suggests asking more questions and rephrasing things to get your point across. “Be OK with the fact that the conversation may take a little bit longer for the purposes of getting to ask the question in different ways, and making sure that the answers are consistent with what your view of the question is,” he says.
Third, be mindful of unwieldy sentences and phrases. May says we often use idioms in our everyday communication and they don’t translate well in other languages. It’s best to keep words and sentences short and simple.
“The longer you type, the more complicated your sentence will be and the worse it’s going to be in terms of perfect translation,” May said.
Fourth, don’t trust the translation app at the first pass. We all know that translation apps aren’t immaculate, whichever one you’re using. Do some research and double-check words that may have multiple meanings, May says. Oftentimes when I text my mother a sentence with my daughter’s name, April, the Chinese translation comes out to “fourth month.” I usually scan for that text and change it.
Fifth, use translation apps as a stepping stone to learning the language on your own and building your own communication skills. “You can build on that, right?” says Ziegler. “We all know the way language works: The more you practice it, the better it goes.”
May feels the same way. “When you’re getting to the point where you want to start training yourself to speak these things, do it by maybe going one word at a time and trying to understand grammar,” he says. "So the app can be an assistant—a tool to assist you—in attempting to learn language, but you need to work at it for sure.”
It’s only been recently—about the past 15 years or so—that technology has been able to get this far in machine translation, May says. In addition to Google Translate, there are other apps available to the public, such as Apple’s Translate. With Skype and Microsoft Translator, users can have live conversations translated in text.
May says that while AI has gotten a lot better, humans are still the best at understanding context since language is so nuanced. I recently started taking Chinese courses on the Duolingo app so that I can deepen my conversations with my mother. We’ve already gotten this far, and I want to see what else we could be saying that we haven’t said yet.