Microsoft added two new spoken languages to Skype Translator, the company announced on Thursday, bringing the total number of supported spoken languages to a tidy half-dozen.
"Today, we are happy to announce that we are once again breaking down language barriers by introducing French and German to the line-up of spoken languages available in the Skype Translator preview app," wrote Yasmin Khan, a Skype senior product marketing manager, in a company blog post. "We are now breaking down more language barriers, and bringing the world closer together, by offering six spoken Skype Translator languages—English, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish—along with 50 instant messaging languages."
The Skype Translator application for Windows 8.1 is currently in beta. Powered by Microsoft's cloud computing and machine learning technologies, the software monitors Skype conversations and produces both text and spoken translations on the fly. First demoed in May 2014, the company released a preview version of Skype Translator in December with support for two spoken languages, English and Spanish.
On April 8, Microsoft released an update that brought Italian and Chinese (Mandarin) into the fold. Enabling Chinese support was a big milestone for the company's computer-based translation efforts, said Khan at the time.
"As you can imagine, Mandarin is a very challenging language to learn, even for Skype Translator," she stated. "With approximately 10,000 characters and multiple tones, this is one of the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to master, along with Arabic, Japanese, and Korean."
The addition of German harkens back to the public's first look at the technology. A year ago, Gurdeep Pall, then the corporate vice president of Skype and Lync (now Skype for Business), demonstrated an early build of the application with the help of a German colleague, Diana Heinrichs.
Some minor hiccups aside, Skype Translator enhanced their video chat with on-screen text and a synthesized voice that delivered fairly accurate translations. Currently, Microsoft is working on integrating the technology into the Skype for Windows Desktop App for a late-summer release.
Beyond connecting users who speak different languages, Microsoft hopes the technology will also help open additional lines of communication for the deaf and sufferers of hearing loss.
Ted Hart, a senior research design engineer at Microsoft Research, who lost his hearing at the age of 13, is using Skype Translator's close-caption-like capabilities to have more natural, impromptu conversations with his family and his colleagues. "There are relay services that you can use, but they are inconvenient and require time to initiate the call," said Hart in a YouTube video describing how he now handles calls with his wife. "With Skype Translator, I just read the transcript and I understand what she is saying."
Microsoft today also released a video guide on configuring and using Skype Translator for Accessibility. The latest version of the app with French and German language support is available for download here.