Traveling in Austria the past two weeks was a lesson in adjusting to customs, and I don’t mean the kind that greet you at the border.
As an American who has rarely traveled abroad (one trip to Iceland, a few jaunts over to Mexico and Canada), I didn’t quite realize how much German I would need to know. There’s a custom in some of the states of Austria that you greet people you don’t know on the street by saying the German equivalent of “may God greet you” each time (something they invented about a hundred years ago). I knew, at the very least, I could learn that phrase and say danke.
Preparing for the trip, I decided to use the Google Assistant on a Google Pixel smartphone to help me learn basic German. The Assistant, which acts as a voice-activated robotic helper, not only translates phrases but can also answer questions about location and the history of a place, and save reminders when you go to the grocery store.
There were a couple of minor issues, though. The Pixel phone I have works on Verizon, and from what I understood from researching and asking Verizon for help, the phone likely would not connect to the local Austrian carrier. So I also bought an LG X smartphone with Sprint service provisioned for Austria. I then ran a hotspot on the phone and kept the Pixel ready as my German language helper. (The Assistant only needs an internet connection, so the phone doesn’t require actual cellular data service to function as a voice assistant, only Wi-Fi.)
Of course, if you know anything about foreign travel, it can be difficult to stop a live conversation with a helpful attendant at the airport, fish out your phone, ask about a phrase, and then play it on your phone or butcher the language yourself in such a short time span. No one likes to sit and wait for you. Instead, I would pull out the phone and try to learn a phrase or a word beforehand.
For example, before going into a bike shop to rent a bicycle for the day, I asked the Assistant how to say “I want to rent a bike” in German. Remember that I’m a newbie traveling in Europe, and the last time I tried to learn a foreign language was in Spanish class about three decades ago. I thought the Assistant said the word meinte, which actually means thought. So I went into the shop and said “thought a bike” in German. The sales rep looked really confused. I finally showed her the phrase on my phone, and she figured out that I wanted to rent a bike.
On a walk in Wallsee, my wife and I came across a miniature castle in front of a house. The homeowner walked out just then and smiled. I wasn’t prepared, but later I looked up how to say “you have a nice castle” in German. It was a good thing I didn’t say the phrase Google Assistant suggested. Google doesn’t help you learn the proper word for showing respect based on knowing the person or not. As my daughter, who speaks German, explained later, there is a formal and informal word for “you” in German and Google had suggested using the informal word, not knowing I was greeting a stranger. It would have been my schlecht.
Then there’s the problem with literal translations. When I announced to a room of people that I was going to go take a nickerchen for a while, not a single person understood me. (In Austria, everyone says schlaf or “go to sleep” instead of “take a nap.”) I learned many of the basic words for food, toilet, and how to say thank you, but, overall, I felt the “universal translator” idea is far from a reality. My bot assistant was only helpful as a teaching tool. In the moment, with someone waiting or when I really had to use the toilette, it was awkward to rely on the voice assistant.
That said, I still liked how it all worked. Waiting in line at the bakery, I said “OK, Google” and then asked how you say apple turnover in German. I practiced a little and then proudly said apfeltasche when it was my turn. It was how I learned. The Assistant would say the word, I’d ask to repeat it, and we’d practice a few times. I could see using the Assistant to help me learn a language because I’d learn words in context. In fact, I’ll remember apfeltasche on my next trip.
Of course, as usual, I wanted more from the AI inside the Google Assistant. Couldn’t the Assistant see that I’m in Austria? That I have never been to the country before? Maybe it could have even guessed that I’m on a public street and suggested saying the formal word for “you” when I noticed that castle in Wallsee. Even better, in the bakery, maybe the Assistant would tell me not to bother with a turnover — since it’s an American pastry — and to try the strudel instead. In Vienna, a really smart assistant would know that people in the service industry there tend to be a little rude and offer one-word phrases. “John, just say kaffee when you order.”
And I was a long way from speaking fluid German. It wasn’t like I was conversing with anyone. For now, the translation helper is really a teaching tool. Someday, when I go back, I’m hoping it’ll be more like a Babel fish from the Douglas Adams books. Only zeit will tell.