British children will soon be able to chat online in Spanish, French, Portuguese and German without knowing a word of any of those languages, as part of an upgrade to Disney’s Club Penguin website.
A new chat system to Club Penguin, which allows children aged five and over to play and chat together online using penguin avatars, will automatically translate pre-selected phrases between the languages used on the site.
The chat system currently contains 300,000 phrases but an update, due later this year, will extend that number to more than six billion. The next update will automatically translate those phrases between the site’s languages.
The result is that children with different native languages will be able to talk without even realising they speak different languages.
Lane Merrifield, Club Penguin’s co-founder, said the team wondered “what would it be like to create a world where language barriers disappear?”. The site has several computational linguists and translators working to develop the translation system, which should be available next year.
One of the ways that Disney keeps the site safe for children is to pre-select the phrases they are allowed to use in conversation. That prevents children using inappropriate language or revealing personal information. As a result, the service has a database of phrases which can be matched to their equivalents in other languages.
“Once you have a finite list of phrases you can translate, the database is just serving up numbers,” Mr Merrifield said.
Club Penguin launched in 2005 and was bought by Disney almost two years later for $350 million (£215m). Since it began, 150 million penguins have been created by children all over the world.
Mr Merrifield estimated that around 20 per cent of all activity on the site is conversation and that older children tend to talk more. Ensuring that the chat system is safe and secure is one of the keys to providing an environment in which children are comfortable, he added.
He said: “Kids know the difference between an online world that feels safe and one that doesn’t.”
Mark Shuttleworth, head of the translation group at Imperial College, London, said Club Penguin was taking an interesting approach to dealing with the problem of translation.
He said that matching a list of phrases with equivalents from another language was still a difficult technical challenge. And though the service might work for a children’s social network, Mr Shuttleworth said: “I don’t know if such a list would cover all eventualities in an adult conversation.”