"I taught English in Thailand for a year, and I tried to continue in education when I returned to the United States, but it wasn’t nearly as fulfilling for me. In Thailand, teachers are really revered. In the hierarchy of prestige, it goes: kings, then monks, then teachers. Parents would always be asking for advice. My students would come up and hug me in the streets. It was almost like I was being welcomed into the families of my students, and we were working together toward education. Back in America, it felt like Home and School were two different zones. It felt more isolating. In Thailand, I definitely felt like I was making a difference. In America, it felt like ‘maybe’ I was making a difference.”
The new trick is to represent an entire language using the relationship between its words. The set of all the relationships, the so-called “language space”, can be thought of as a set of vectors that each point from one word to another. And in recent years, linguists have discovered that it is possible to handle these vectors mathematically. For example, the operation ‘king’ – ‘man’ + ‘woman’ results in a vector that is similar to ‘queen’.
It turns out that different languages share many similarities in this vector space. That means the process of converting one language into another is equivalent to finding the transformation that converts one vector space into the other.
This turns the problem of translation from one of linguistics into one of mathematics. So the problem for the Google team is to find a way of accurately mapping one vector space onto the other. For this they use a small bilingual dictionary compiled by human experts–comparing same corpus of words in two different languages gives them a ready-made linear transformation that does the trick.