ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Aug. 5, 2015) -- A U.S. Army team is testing and helping to develop a language translator to enable Soldiers communicate with their African counterparts.

Improving the ability of American service members to communicate in foreign languages, particularly in French dialects, is becoming critical in Africa, said Maj. Eddie Strimel, the Field Assistance in Science and Technology advisor assigned to U.S. Army Africa.

U.S. Soldiers conduct training and exercises regularly in about 20 of Africa's 54 countries, he said.

"We believe Africa is a future frontier for technology in the next 10 to 15 years. French is a priority for us. If we can get these dialects developed with this type of system, it will benefit the Army, Air Force and Marines down the road," he said.

FAST advisors, both uniformed officers and Army civilians, are a link between Soldiers in the field and the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's subject matter experts.

Strimel facilitated testing of the SQ.410 Translation System, a handheld, rugged, two-way language translation system from a commercial vendor, VoxTec. The device is programmed with nine languages and does not require a cell network or Internet service to operate.

Nineteen Soldiers and Army civilians tested the system, July 13-17, at U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza, Italy, and their feedback was primarily positive.

When a Soldier speaks in English, the device will repeat what it recognizes and display it on the screen. The system then provides written and spoken translations in the other language. It can also record conversations.

Dr. Stephen LaRocca, a computer scientist and team chief of the Multilingual Computing Branch at Research, Development and Engineering Command's, or RDECOM, Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, provided technical expertise during testing.

An important aspect of the research is to collect data for improving the system's ability to recognize the many French accents and dialects in Africa, LaRocca said.

"While commercial speech translation software is available for French, we know that it was trained for general purpose use by European speakers," he said. "How well it works for communication tasks specific to U.S. teams working with African partners is just now being examined.

"From a scientific perspective, we need to know how sensitive the technology is to the different accents of the many diverse French-speaking African language communities."

Further testing in the field is under way to determine how well the current device works with Soldiers from different African countries and regions. The U.S. Army will then be able to better determine what, if any, improvements are needed to the software.

Capt. Scott Saunders, also with U.S. Army Africa, tested a system at the African Western Accord Exercise in the Netherlands in late July. American Soldiers assigned to the Basic Intelligence Course in the Democratic Republic of Congo will test the translators in September, and Strimel is working to find more exercises.

U.S. Army Africa is working with the U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force to purchase five translators for additional testing and data collection during coordination meetings and route reconnaissance with African Soldiers. ARL and the vendor could then use the data to better refine the software.

Africa is just a beginning point, Strimel said. U.S. military commanders stationed around the world have shown an increased interest in language translation.

LaRocca said that while more work is needed on the translation system, it has already begun to benefit American and African service members.

"What can be done to increase performance when it falls short for a group of speakers? Will software adapted for French speakers in Burundi, for example, perform better for French speakers in Senegal than the original? Beyond issues of accents, there are questions about technical language that USARAF Soldiers might need to perform some tasks," he said. "How feasible is it to add domains of military interest to the language of the speech translation systems?

"While the FAST/U.S. Army Africa project will not answer all the important questions about adapting language technologies, it has already succeeded in advancing discussions of what our Soldiers need to build rapport with their counterparts and to help them communicate across language barriers when human translators are not available."

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The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.