ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Dec. 2, 2015) -- The U.S. Army is testing and upgrading a language-translation program by training with African soldiers, officials said.

Recording foreign Soldiers' speech and providing the data to Army researchers is key to improving the technology, said Maj. Eddie Strimel and Bill Bergen, the Field Assistance in Science and Technology, or FAST, advisors assigned to U.S. Army Africa. Capturing French accents and dialects from across Africa helps scientists refine the translation software.

The FAST team recorded 1,664 lines of speech from 20 Nigerien soldiers during the Military Intelligence Basic Officer Course - Africa in Niamey, Niger, Oct. 26-30. They used the SQ.410 Translation System, a handheld, rugged, two-way language-translation device from a commercial vendor, VoxTec.

The effort is part of U.S. Army Africa's African Horizon strategy to build partnerships across the continent to achieve mutual security objectives.

"The baseline system was designed with European French, so the test's main purpose was to confirm the performance with the local Nigerien French. The results were as expected," Strimel said. "From English to one of the nine foreign languages, the system performed correctly about 90 percent of the time.

"Translating from African French dialects back to English showed a larger margin of error, including incorrect translations about 50 percent of the time. It validated our mission, giving us a wealth of data to enhance the system."

Brig. Gen. Kenneth H. Moore Jr., U.S. Army Africa deputy commanding general, said the technology strengthens relationships with partner nations.

"I am impressed with the FAST team's language-translation program. It is a force-multiplier in improving our efforts in military-to-military exercises," Moore said. "Language understanding can hinder or enhance operations when multi-national forces operate together, particularly on a continent where more than 2,100 languages are spoken.

"These pioneering efforts are a substantial step forward in strengthening partnerships between the U.S, African and European partners."

Dr. Stephen LaRocca, a computer scientist and team chief of the Multilingual Computing Branch at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, provided three scripted scenarios in French for the Nigeriens to speak.

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. While the system contains nine languages, U.S. Army Africa is focusing on French.

The FAST team's objective is to record speech samples from each of Africa's five regions during the next year to capture the different dialects. The Army's Rapid Equipping Force is purchasing 50 translators, which should arrive in January 2016, for USARAF's use in Africa.

"The goal is to take the data and incorporate it back into the automatic speech recognition software module," Strimel said. "It will be specific for that region of Africa. On our next trip to the African continent, we can confirm the concept and find out if the recorded data helped improve the system for translation."

It will take ARL about six months to update the system's African French module from the Nigerien speech samples. U.S. Soldiers also tested the system in Mali, Sept. 4-23.

Exercises such as Central Accord 2016, with 15 African countries participating, will also provide tremendous opportunities for U.S. Soldiers to collect speech data, Strimel said.

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The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which 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.