SAN ANTONIO -- The language barrier between American Soldiers and Iraqi and Afghan civilians on the battlefield is one step closer to tumbling as engineers continue to design technology like the "Phraselator."

Technicians from the Research, Development and Engineering Command showcased the technology during public displays at events leading up to the 2010 All-American Bowl at the Alamodome, Jan. 9.

Scientists from the Army Research Laboratory tested and evaluated the Phraselater, bringing together hardware and software to create a device, basically a Windows-based, hand-held computer to translate English into most other languages.

Imagine a vehicle approaching a restricted area. Soldiers need to issue a set of demands in the local language. With the Phraselator and a few simple clicks, the Soldiers communicate exactly what is needed. That's why today, the Army has fielded more tha 2,000 Phraselators mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shaffer said the $2,000 device is cost effective, and perfect for basic interaction.

Soldiers speak directly into the device or use a digital keyboard to type a phrase for translations. The device has a fairly loud built-in speaker, so listeners hear the spoken translation in their own language. Phraselater also stores commonly used phrases for quick access.

"They're very easy to use," said Capt. Scott Shaffer, Army Research Laboratory. "I could probably teach a Soldier to use this in 10 or 15 minutes."

The Phraselator isn't intended to replace human translators. Shaffer said the Army is still working to expand the device's capabilities.

"Soldiers can use this while working alongside translators," he said. "There is something with interacting and having a full conversation, and you're not going to get that with this."

Researchers continue to develop ways to allow for free-flow conversation, and improvements continue to be made to make the device more effective.

"We research different languages and different dialects," Shaffer said. "We send people to remote areas of Iraq and Afghanistan and we work with locals and translators to take voice recordings to develop new software."

Feedback from Soldiers has been positive. "They've been very happy with it," he said.

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