|How to learn Japanese using Google Translate. Image credit: By Bernard Gagnon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4375646|
I was able to download the Google Translate app in iPad last week. The app is free, but the catch is that the images are sent to Google, so Google knows how you are using the app. Well, I am not using it for highly classified information that would bring down the whole country if they are released in Wikileaks. I am just taking a picture of what is written in a soy sauce or magazine or flyer. So I clicked ok. This is the price of free apps: you become the product, i.e. how you use the app will help make the app smarter, because image-to-text translation apps rely on neural networks and deep learning technologies which need to be trained and trained by giving them more and more data to chew and churn. As the the Google Translate app becomes better, Google can then use this expertise to make its search advertising business smarter.
At the start, I was just taking pictures of Japanese characters in Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Kanji are traditional Chinese characters. But a friend told me that in China, they have simplified the Chinese characters that it is impossible for the Japanese to read them. Katakana are simplifications of some Chinese characters, with a preponderance of angular strokes. Katakana is for the translation of foreign-derived words into Japanese syllabary. Finally, Hiragana is the Japanese syllabary with a preponderance of curved strokes. You may think of Hiragana as snails and Katakana as starfishes with different numbers of arms.
Taking pictures may not be polite when riding trains, so I learned to draw the characters with my hand in my iPad and let Google Translate translate the sequence of Japanese characters to English. Right now, I am still learning my hiragana and katakana, so I remember only one character at a time when looking at some posters and signs in the train or bus. Google Translate does an excellent job of knowing the characters that I have written. For the case of kanji, I had trouble with Google Translate. Well, actually it's my fault: I have to remember what the kanji character looks like and draw it in my iPad. This really exercises my imagination. I am an artist. I can draw faces. But Google Translate allows you only a second or two to draw the character before it translate it into a well-written Japanese character which Google then translates to English. So with complicated kanjis that are compounds of different basic characters, I cannot write fast enough, because my mind still has to pause to recall the next set of strokes. We humans can only remember seven chunks of information in our short-term memory. A kanji with 20 strokes is difficult to remember. But if you can remember the basic characters within a compound kanji character, you can bring down those 20 strokes into just 2 to 3 word-characters, which is easier to remember.
The good thing with Google translate is that it keeps a record of all characters that you have written and suggests some of them if it sees a similar pattern. It also gives suggestions of other related characters to see if there is something there that you intended. It's something like a thesaurus on the fly. You can also use the microphone too, and speak the speech as you pronounce it trippingly on your tongue. I have used this feature once when we were having lunch in the office. To show off the capabilities of Google Translate, I touched the microphone icon and spoke, "My name is Quirino." And the voice of a lovely lady translated them in Japanese: "Watashinonamaeha karinadesu" My friends laughed. This boy has turned into a woman. But hey, I can now have a sensible dialogue with another person if we have Google Translate in our phones or iPads.