A megaphone that can translate

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An article by Nick Vivian in USA Today informs us:

"Tokyo's airport is using this incredible megaphone to translate into three languages on the fly" (11/22/15).

The person wielding the megaphone speaks into it in Japanese and the megaphone amplifies her messages in three languages, one after another:  English, Korean, and Chinese.

The article includes a video showing the megaphone in action.  It also describes plans to develop more ambitious devices that can handle more languages, that will be able to engage in two-way conversation, and can team up with robots to make them even more astonishingly lifelike than they already are.

[h.t. Kyle Wilcox]


  1. Tim Martin said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 9:47 pm

    Hmm… So this sounds really impressive, but the video doesn't seem to demonstrate the functionality that's advertised in the article.

    The woman in the video speaks only one simple phrase for translation [もうすぐバスが来ます、or "The bus will arrive shortly." Later, a Japanese man says that you can register various sentences in the megaphone and select them to play through the megaphone.

    It's entirely possible that pre-selected sentences will have already been checked for accuracy in the target languages and saved as such. I would have liked to see more demonstrations of on-the-fly translation, with a more diverse sample of sentences.

    But, not to sound completely negative, this is a cool technology!

  2. James said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 10:26 pm

    The only way this could possibly work, if it does more than repeat prerecorded phrases, would surely be with a mechanical turk type backend. I can hardly believe that any responsible authority would accept the liability of issuing an incorrect instruction because they were relying on machine translation that is still, and will probably always remain, incapable of contextual disambiguation.

  3. maidhc said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 1:48 am

    How many different phrases do you need to say through a megaphone at an airport?

    It's a much different thing to distinguish among a small set of fixed phrases than to translate unrestricted speech on the fly.

  4. Rubrick said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 2:23 am

    The media always puts all their attention on the charismatic megaphona.

  5. Michael said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 2:45 am

    Rubrick: This being Language Log: What's with plurals confusion in "The media always puts all their attention"?

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 3:33 am

    @Michael: No problem, at least if Rubrick is North American. It would be perfectly normal to say e.g. The committee has put all their attention… in North American English. (BrEng The committee have put all their attention… sounds really weird to North Americans.) Rubrick is just treating media like committee.

    This specific case is complicated by the uncertain grammar of media, which for most people is no longer the plural of medium but simply a mass noun like data. If you are North American, that may be why you find this weird. If you are from some other part of the Anglosphere, I think you're just reacting to North American grammar.

    Now, if Rubrick is not North American, then perhaps they can explain their own grammar to us.

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 3:34 am

    @Rubrick: Don't worry, I did appreciate your play on words.

  8. Bill Benzon said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 7:17 am

    What's Japanese for "beam me up"?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 7:59 am

    "Iranian parliamentary panel gives conditional nod to nuclear deal" (10/4/15):

    "An committee of Iran's conservative-dominated parliament gave its support on Sunday to Iran's nuclear agreement with world powers on condition there would be no foreign inspections of military sites and no curbs on developing its missile program."

    Last news from Russia:
    "The UEFA Executive Committee gave its full support to Michel Platini" (10/16/15)

    Journal of the Annual Convention – Page 43 – Google Books Result
    Episcopal Church. Diocese of North Carolina – 1887 – ‎Episcopalians
    On motion, the third resolution was adopted : " That the Committee on … At the same meeting the Committee gave its consent to the consecration of the Rev.

    etc., etc.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 9:47 am

    As is so often the case, the journalist is not telling us anything useful about how the device actually works, but I would wager a substantial sum that this is not genuine general speech-to-speech translation.

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 10:24 am

    @Victor Mair: I didn't say that committee … its is impossible in AmEng. I just said committee … their "would be perfectly normal".

    Here are a few examples from the web of collective nouns used with singular verb and plural possessive determiner. The first two are definitely American; the third could be British (and the verb could be plural):


    SXSW Interactive has faced a lot of criticism about their decision to cancel an anti-harassment panel in the wake of violent threats. . . (www.themarysue.com)

    In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a Broadway theatre musical based on Charles Dickens's last, unfinished work, the audience must vote for whom they think the murderer is, as well as the real identity of the detective and the couple who end up together. (Wikipedia, "Audience").

  12. Catanea said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

    So…not the fabled Pomegranate….yet….
    no coffee, no shave, no instant translation.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 2:01 pm

    @Bob Ladd

    My comment was not addressed to you.

  14. Piyush said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 3:12 pm

    When I learnt English in high school in India, I was taught that whether collective nouns such "committee" or "team" take the singular or the plural form of the verb depends upon whether the action being described is being taken collectively or not.

    So, for example, if the committee in question were particularly bellicose, we were taught to write "The committee are throwing pen-stands at each other." but "The committee has decided to buy more pen-stands."

    I am not sure how much of this rule was made up by the person who wrote our textbook.

  15. Tim Martin said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 3:19 pm

    I was curious, so I did a little bit more research on the megaphone. Specifically, I was starting to wonder if maybe the original Japanese reports *didn't* say that this thing could translate in real time.

    Here's the Mainichi Shinbun reporting: http://www.mainichi.jp/select/news/20151114k0000m040070000c.html

    They do say that the megaphone does translations of what you speak into it. The report also says that the translations are "at the level of a smartphone app," and that the megaphone still can't deal very well with airport-related technical jargon.

    So I guess that answers my question. But wait! There's a pun that the English reports missed!

    Phonologically speaking, Japanese doesn't like to put an "f" before an "o" sound. Instead of "fo," a Japanese person will say "ho." So in Japanese, 'megaphone' will become 'megahon.'

    The English reports mention that 'yaku' (訳)means 'translation,' which is true, but the more common technical word is 'honyaku' (翻訳), which means basically the same thing.

    Sooooooo, the device is called megahonyaku! A pun that includes 'megaphone' and 'honyaku'! Love it.

  16. Lorraine said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 7:03 pm

    @catanea Thank you for sharing that link. The Pomegranate will be a huge improvement over this Babel fish I've been using.

  17. Matt said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 8:13 pm

    According to this Narita Airport press release, it's basically a megaphone + target language serialization add-on for the NariTra app, which at least claims to be genuine automatic translation rather than a voice-recognizing phrasebook or similar.

  18. The Filter Dislikes Dainichi said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 10:31 pm

    @Tim Martin

    "Phonologically speaking, Japanese doesn't like to put an "f" before an "o" sound. "

    Yes, the /f/-/h/ distinction seems to be iffy in front of /o/, although it's pretty established in front of /a/, /i/ and /e/.

    The /fo/-/ho/ distinction does exist in writing (フォ/ホ), but many foreign words with /f/ in the original language (including メガホン, megahon) were imported with /h/, presumably because they were imported before the /fo/ started becoming possible phonotactically.

    Platform プラットフォーム purattofo:mu for some reason is shortened to ホーム ho:mu, at least when talking about platforms at stations. ホーム is also how the English "home" was imported.

    The funniest "Engrish" I've seen so far was a sign on a station saying "Go straight on home". It obviously meant to say something like "(To reach some destination) continue straight on the platform". I was passing by in a train and didn't get my camera out in time.

  19. phspaelti said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 12:19 am

    @filter: Platform プラットフォーム purattofo:mu for some reason is shortened to ホーム ho:mu, …

    Well プラットホーム is the usual form. It is an old borrowing. So the shortening to ホーム makes sense.

  20. The Filter Dislikes Dainichi said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 12:37 am


    プラットフォーム outnumbers プラットホーム on both Google and the Kotonoha corpus, although I didn't think of a good way to check how many of them refer to station platforms in particular.

    As you say, probably プラットホーム is the original loan, with プラットフォーム a later version introduced when /fo/ became possible. ホーム doesn't seem to have gotten "fixed", probably because it had already taken root, and maybe also exactly because people wouldn't realize the different etymology from "home".

  21. Matt said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 2:56 am

    Dainichi: If you do a search for both terms limited to, say, *.jreast.co.jp, you will notice a very interesting distribution: プラットフォーム for "[software] platform" and プラットホーム for "[train station] platform". Without investigating any further (or even beyond the first page of Google results), my immediate assumption is that "platform" was originally loaned as プラットホーム (for the train station sense) and then, decades later, loaned again as プラットフォーム (for the software/business/etc. sense). Definitely wouldn't be the first time this sort of thing has happened in Japanese – トロッコ vs トラック, etc.

    What I really want to know now is to what extent this distinction is maintained in non-official documents – do people who don't deal with either kind of platform professionally use プラットホーム for both? (Does it depend on their age?) Do software developers wait for trains on a プラットフォーム? (Did they in 1995?) And so on…

  22. phspaelti said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 9:37 am

    This is just one data point, but Asian Kung-Fu Generation in their song ロートムービー clearly sing プラットホーム. But otherwise my own informal completely biased impression is that プラットフォーム is common for the station platform in modern speech.

  23. Tim Martin said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 11:17 am

    Re: train platforms, in my experience nobody in casual conversation says プラットホーム when they can just say ホーム。 And I don't think I've ever heard just フォーム to refer to a train platform.

    As for more official announcements at train stations and whatnot, my memory isn't very clear on whether I more often heard プラットフォーム or プラットホーム. I'm inclined to say it was the latter, but I wouldn't trust that. Anyway, this would have been between 2005 and 2008.

    No idea about software platforms.

  24. flow said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

    two cents:

    In the Mainichi article, メガホン and スマートフォン are just a few words apart. Such loanwords with subtle differences can be quite confusing. And while the latter is a more faithful rendering of the English word, the vowel is still short, as in the older form (one should expect スマートフォーン, cf. the vowel of 'home' surfacing as ホーム).

    The プラットフォーム / プラットホーム re-loan reminded me of Italian 'oggetto' (object) vs 'obiettivo' (camera lens). BTW I think I never heard プラットホーム for a platform in a station, only ホーム.

  25. Matt said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

    Arguably, the lack of lengthening on the vowel in megahon, sumaatofon etc. is a strategy for representing the English stress pattern. (Why is it still there in purattohoomu? Uh… long vowels caused by non-rhotacism override stress patterns?)

    Also of note: a couple years ago there was some friendly debate on the net over whether the correct abbreviation for it was "sumafo", "sumaho" (with addition or omission of final /N/ segment as a side issue). I recall noticing that even some people who said "sumaatofon" preferred "sumaho", evidence that the abbreviation-creation process can involve phonemic "simplification" (preferring long-established phonemes to relatively new ones) as well as simple shortening.

  26. The Filter Dislikes Dainichi said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 11:08 pm


    "Arguably, the lack of lengthening on the vowel in megahon, sumaatofon etc. is a strategy for representing the English stress pattern."

    Possibly, but not a productive strategy. I'm pretty sure if words ending in -phone were reimported with current "conversion patterns", it would be as -フォーン. I have a feeling the patterns used to be different/less regular. Compare monotone モノトーン, styrofoam スタイロフォーム with the same secondary stress on the relevant syllable.

  27. Matt said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 9:23 pm

    I think you're right on that. I don't think that the model pronunciation for English words in particular has been anything like stable in the century-and-a-half or so of intensive borrowing — some words were borrowed from Englishmen, some from Americans, some from written texts alone. I wonder if anyone has ever rolled up their sleeves and tried to establish layers, like the whole "Kan-on, To-on…" thing for kanji.

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