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Skype Translator adds Mandarin and Italian to its repertoire

The translation feature for the Internet-calling service now speaks the languages of Beijing and Rome. But the translator is still available only in preview mode.

Skype Translator has expanded its language skills. Microsoft

Skype's new translator can now speak Italian and Mandarin.

In a blog post published Wednesday, Yasmin Khan, who handles marketing for the Internet-calling service, said Italian was added to the translator's list of languages based on the interest of people who signed up for the Skype Translator preview program. But adding Italian to the translator's skills was apparently relatively easy compared with teaching it Mandarin.

"With approximately 10,000 characters and multiple tones, [Mandarin] is one of the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to master, along with Arabic, Japanese and Korean," Khan said.

Located in Beijing, researchers and scientists from Skype owner Microsoft worked with their counterparts in the US to help create the recognition, language and translation models for Mandarin, according to Khan.

Before this, Skype Translator was just bilingual, in Spanish and English.

Skype, which offers Internet-based phone calls as well as text messaging, potentially faces competition from Facebook's WhatsApp, a messaging app that is adding voice calling to its list of features. Facebook-owned WhatsApp is the biggest instant-messaging service in the world, with 700 million users as of January. To keep and draw in users, Skype has been expanding its own feature set, including Skype for Business and Skype Translator.

Announced in May of 2014, Skype Translator provides near real-time language translation. During a phone call, the service is able to translate the languages of both parties in an attempt to break the language barrier. Beyond its understanding of the two new languages, the service supports English and Spanish. It can also translate instant messages in a variety of different languages.

But Microsoft is going slow with Skype Translator. The service is still in public preview mode, and only a limited number of spots are available to those who register. Currently, the service supports only devices running Windows 8.1 or the Windows 10 Technical Preview. Whether you get selected to participate depends on the date you registered, the devices you selected, the availability of selected languages and your registration code (if you have one). Hint: search for "Skype Translator registration code" to find one online.

The latest release of Skype Translator adds other features beyond the two new languages, according to Khan.

You can now hear instant messages in the language of your choice. And text is now translated at the same time the person on the other end is speaking. That means they can continue to speak while the translation is happening. You hear the translation at a higher volume, while your partner's voice comes through at a lower volume. The goal of these latest enhancements is to make the conversation more fluid and natural.

A spokeswoman for Microsoft told CNET that the company had nothing more to add beyond the blog post.