No Americans suffer more from their inability to understand, or make themselves understood by, non-English speakers than America’s soldiers in Iraq. That’s why this year the Pentagon equipped thousands of them with the Phraselator, a hand-held electronic gadget that allows the soldiers to deliver hundreds of useful phrases, prerecorded in Arabic, to the Iraqis they encounter.

The device, which looks like an oversize Palm Pilot with a speaker and a microphone on top, breaks into Arabic when it hears an equivalent phrase in English spoken by a user whose voice it recognizes. Like an electronic parrot, the Phraselator may not be much of a conversationalist and can lack charm — sample phrases include ”Not a step farther,” ”Put your hands on the wall” and ”Everyone stop talking” — but its boosters claim that because the phrases are prerecorded by native speakers and not computer-generated, the monologues have ”a more natural feel.” The Phraselator is marketed as ”a complete solution for cross-cultural awareness.”

Its creators at the Pentagon-financed company VoxTec admit that even the new model, the P2, has a drawback: it is still just a ”one-way” translation device. In other words, it phraselates perfectly well from English into Arabic (or any of the 59 other ”target languages” it has mastered so far), but the device is no better at understanding foreign languages than the Americans who are wielding it. So the Phraselator allows occupiers to issue commands, but it does not help them comprehend any of what the occupied may have to say in response.

Despite this limitation, VoxTec is planning to roll out a consumer version soon, so it won’t be long before American tourists will be able to make demands and deliver orders in foreign languages without having to learn a single word of them.

More here.