The internet can be a wonderful source of information for those thinking of a move to France but, if that information is in a language you are not fluent in, then you can’t take advantage of it. Except, of course, now you can – and I’m grateful to @frank_o_file for tweeting a link to the Lifehacker blog to tell me how. I don’t know about you, but I suspect like lots of folks, I’m pretty stuck in my ways when it comes to my use of web browsers so, it’s Safari when I’m using my iPad or Mac and Internet Explorer when I’m using a PC. This is not to say I think these are the ‘best’ browsers – they just happen to be the ones that I got used to and, through inertia, have stuck with. But perhaps not for much longer….
Google are, of course, pretty much masters of the internet universe and their web browser – Chrome – is highly regarded by those that use it. It is available as a free download and with support for PC, Mac and Linux operating systems. Google have now introduced a new extension for Chrome – essentially an ‘add-on’ to the browser that can also be obtained as a free download – called Language Immersion. The combination of Chrome and this add-on makes two things possible. First, the browser can take an English language website and, to varying degrees at the control of the user, translate words and phrases within it into any other language (French included but I think the same list of languages offered by Google Translate is supported). As I’ll try to explain in a minute, this is pretty remarkable in itself, but it doesn’t stop there. The second thing is that (and this is just a feature of Chrome – it doesn’t require the Language Immersion extension), if you visit a website in another language (for example, a French government or business website that doesn’t have an English language option) in most cases, Chrome will then do a complete translation of the current page into a different language. If, like me, your French is still far from fluent and you have ever tried to work your way through a French language website to glean some important information, the first time you see this translation process happen in Chrome – and it is pretty much instantaneous – is really quite jaw-dropping!
So, what Chrome and the Language Immersion extension provide between them is really two types of tools; an excellent language learning tool that allows you to see how a website that you know in English might look with a few key phrases translated into French and a comprehensive translation service when you need to see a French webpage translated into English. Let’s see how….
Once you have both Chrome and the Language Immersion extension installed (both available from Google’s own webpages here and here respectively – although a quick search on Google will soon find them both and the process took just a couple of minutes on my Mac), when opened, Chrome shows a small square icon located top-right beside the address/search box. Clicking on this allows the user to both pick the language into which any English language website will be translated. The second control is the ‘degree of immersion’ slider. This has five possible settings, ranging from novice to fluent. At the novice setting, just a few words and phrases of any webpage are translated into the chosen language while a gradually greater proportion is translated as you move the slider to the right. At the fluent settings, a complete translation is performed.
Beside the ‘pick a language’ drop-down in the Language Immersion dialog is a small ‘spanner’ icon. This brings up two options that can be switched on or off. The ‘Highlight Translations’ is enabled by default and, as the name suggests, places a pale blue highlight behind any text that is translated making it easy to spot where the changes have been made in any dense block of text. If you click on any of these highlighted sections of text, it toggles the translation of that word or phrase back and forth between the chosen language and English.
The second option – Speak Translations – is disabled by default but, if switched on, when you hover the mouse over a translated word or phrase, it is spoken in your chosen language. If French is your chosen language, then the speech is delivered in a very clear female voice.
The combination of these various settings make Language Immersion a brilliant learning tool. You start with an English webpage – perhaps one that you are already familiar with and certainly one that you are interested in the content of – and the browser can gradually increase the amount of translation. You can toggle phrases back and forth between English and French and you can hear how the French ought to be pronounced. As the name says, you can just immerse yourself as far as you feel comfortable and, as a way to build your vocabulary, it is truly wonderful tool. And it’s free….
If you open a foreign language website, Chrome automatically attempts to translate it for you. As the page finishes loading, a new option bar appears at the top of the browser window stating that the translation has taken place, the languages used (for example from French to English) and the option to ‘show original’ to return back to the original language version.
Apart from saying this is mighty impressive technology, in use, all I can add is that the process worked considerably more often than not. I received the occasional ‘server error’ type message (I think implying issues accessing Google’s translation service rather than a problem with the actual website I was viewing) but, that aside, the results are truly remarkable – websites that previously were simply unfathomable can now be followed and understood. Yes, occasionally, you have to cope with a clumsy translation but, even then, it seems to be well ahead of some manual translations I’ve seen from foreign language originals into English (think about some of those translated instructions booklets you have experienced with electrical items!). In short, in Chrome, Google are attempting to turn the internet into an environment that is independent of the language(s) you happen to speak. In the online world at least, we now have a browser version of Douglas Adam’s babel fish.
There is always a bit of a hurdle to overcome when you move from a familiar tool for a particular job to a new, unfamiliar, one. Moving from one of the other popular web browsers to Chrome is, therefore, always going to create a little bit of initial frustration as you find your way around the tools it offers. That said, in experimenting with Chrome while working on this post, it felt very natural and I quickly became accustomed to the more obvious browser tasks such as opening a new tab, or storing and retrieving favourites. The interface is very slick and seems very responsive. If my current browser was suddenly to disappear from the world, I’m sure I’d soon be happy enough to depend upon Chrome.
However, I am keen to improve my French and the combination of Chrome and the Language Immersion extension is hugely impressive – and this makes Chrome a very attractive alternative. Indeed, for someone who, like me, has rather less than fluent French skills, it appears almost magical. Given just what is delivered – and delivered for free remember – the occasional server or translation glitch is of absolutely no consequence. If you want a tool to improve your French or access to French language websites, Chrome and the Language Immersion extension are a compelling combination.