Cool Idea #9: Tatoeba

Anybody who’s taken a language course in high school or college is familiar with the thick two-way dictionaries made for learners. For those of us who are native English speakers with some experience in our target languages, those are pretty useful. But too often, their entries are useless to new students. When I took my first Spanish class, for example, I had no clue how to conjugate ser (to be) in the preterite tense, let alone what the preterite tense was. The dictionary didn’t provide that, and because of this I had no way to express things other than in the present tense.

I could elaborate more, but I’ve got a ton of other work to do right now, so I’ll have to cut this a little short. What I’m trying to say is that traditional dictionaries are great tools for seasoned language learners who just can’t recall the right word. When it comes to helping the new students, though, they fall flat because the words exist on their own. Tatoeba takes a different approach by giving translations of sentences, not individual words. Because everything is generated by users who are for the most part accessible and because it teaches with actual examples as opposed to rules, I think Tatoeba could be a great way to pick up a language.

Here are all the versions of “My name is Jack.” And here’s a video explaining the idea behind Tatoeba.

This is a great idea, and I’ve already started translating some sentences in English, Spanish, and Ukrainian. But I also see a whole lot of untapped potential. As translation and language education become more open and more collaborative processes, this same concept of bit-by-bit translation across multiple languages can be exported. I’d like to see within the next few years a large-scale project focused on translating books in the public domain. A crowdsourced version of say, Moby-Dick in Esperanto¬†would be a great read, if you ask me.

One issue: I can’t seem to get Arabic text (or anything else written from left to right) to type correctly. Maybe it’s just me, though.