How she built this: sophomore Taliyah Huang invents a Taiwanese-English translation tool to bridge language gaps

Taiwanese American Taliyah Huang is an engineering student who has built a suite of programs, including BobaWay, a web-based Taiwanese translator. We were excited to interview her about the project and her broader passions. 

Hi Taliyah! Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself? 

My name is Taliyah Huang, and I am a sophomore student studying biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. My parents immigrated from Taiwan, but I was born and raised in California. I started being interested in technology in high school and taught myself programming, 3D modeling, electronics, among other technical skills that I use frequently for my hobby of inventing and building fun things.

In an introductory video, Taliyah explains that she was raised in a Taiwanese and Mandarin-speaking household but lost some of her fluency after leaving home to attend college. Like many second-generation Taiwanese Americans, Taliyah has grandparents with limited English fluency, and she wanted to maintain, or even cultivate, the ability to converse with them beyond a few limited phrases. Since Google Translate does not have Taiwanese as a language (though in 2022 Meta developed an artificially intelligent translation system to convert Hokkien to spoken English), Taliyah developed a web-based solution of her own. BobaWay allows users to input text in English or Chinese and receive an output of the Taiwanese translation as an audio clip (Taiwanese/Hokkien are not written languages). The app is even customizable, with different color schemes named after popular boba orders like Taro Milk Tea, a soothing but vibrant lavender.

L: I love that your video provides a comprehensive overview of your thought process in developing BobaWay, and that you were able to synthesize different existing resources, like iTaigi, in a new and accessible way. Can you tell us more about your broad approach to problem-solving? What interested you about programming?

I started teaching myself programming in high school so that I could make mechatronics passion projects like the creative mechanical keyboards I feature on my Youtube channel. Then, I moved on to some software-only projects such as BobaWay. Since the topics I choose to tackle are ones I’m personally interested in, I have a lot of fun coding and learning new techniques along the way. Everyone always says that coding is the future, and as a young woman in STEM, I hope to be able to inspire others to pursue such a promising field of study.

L: I saw that it took you over seventeen tries to make the code compatible across all devices! How do you motivate yourself to keep exploring different solutions and possibilities?

I’m always really ambitious and want to be able to solve big problems in the world like hunger, poverty, environmental crises, etc., but the truth is that those problems can’t be solved that easily with a single piece of technology developed by one person. However, someday I hope I’ll be able to contribute to a life-saving innovation, so right now I just need to focus on building up my technical and problem-solving abilities by creating projects like BobaWay.

L: And why did you name it “BobaWay?”

I call it BobaWay because I know that most people in the world are familiar with the popular drink, boba tea, which originates from Taiwan. The “way” represents both the manner of doing something (in this case, the way that Taiwanese people speak) and the Taiwanese word for language (uē).

L: That makes perfect sense! I love it. Can you also tell our readers more about the reasoning for your source selection?

I found the Mandarin to Taiwanese dictionary that Taiwanese people frequently use called iTaigi. The site released their database and audio files publicly, so I could easily download the sources. Those sources in the form of spreadsheets were what I used to translate word by word in my first version of BobaWay. But then, I found a Mandarin to Taiwanese sentence translator that works quite well here, so that is what the new version of BobaWay relies on now to provide more accurate translations.

L: What are you most proud of about yourself and this project? 

Honestly, I didn’t think my final creation of BobaWay was very impressive. Sure, the GUI was super colorful and cute, but I felt bad that the translations and synthesized audio sounded unnatural 95% of the time. Despite my low confidence, I produced a video to share with the world. And the reaction was surprising. My channel gained 600 followers in 3 days, and I received even more praise after my interview was published to the news media. I’ve learned to cherish anything I pour my efforts into, especially when it has to do with my culture. Thanks to all the support, my motivation to improve BobaWay was reinvigorated, and I recently launched an updated version with better quality translations and features. I’m most proud of my determination to continuously iterate and improve.

L: The boba intermission was so fun. I think you could definitely consider being both a food content creator and a software developer. What are some other ways your passion for food and code have intersected?

Yes, making and eating food is another one of my hobbies, but I don’t think I’ve done a technology project involving food before BobaWay. Growing up, my parents cooked for me daily, so my favorite cuisines are Taiwanese and Japanese, and I miss their traditional dishes dearly. But I’ve asked my parents for their recipes so I can try them myself, so recently some foods I’ve made are minced pork rice, mochi, and cream puffs.

L: How did you get started coding? What was the first project that really felt like your own?

In my freshman year of high school, I curiously tried a 3D design workshop and was instantly hooked into the world of engineering. I play the flute, so I spent three months designing and programming an automatic flute cleaning machine that I was very proud of. To my surprise, I had the opportunity to present it to the Vice President of the U.S. at the time, Mike Pence, as well as take my project to Oracle OpenWorld, a world-renowned tech conference. I think that was when I realized I had a talent for invention. Since then, I’ve accumulated many more technical skills such as CAD, 3D printing, and electronics through challenging myself with increasingly difficult projects.

L: What was your parents’ and grandparents’ reaction to BobaWay?

My parents and grandparents are used to seeing me constantly invent and create new things, but this time BobaWay was something they could truly resonate with as well. When I first had my family try BobaWay, they really liked the idea and enjoyed testing the translator with a variety of sentences and phrases. They also shared the idea with other Taiwanese friends and extended family members who all responded with excitement. I’m really grateful my family has always been so supportive of my hobbies, and I’m glad I can share Taiwanese culture with the world.

L: How has BobaWay impacted someone else’s relationship with their family or friends?

I’ve received a lot of support for BobaWay after posting it online. Many people have commented about sharing a similar situation of wanting to get better at Taiwanese as a Taiwanese American or as an American living in Taiwan. It truly makes me proud and happy that I am able to make a positive impact in the world.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the Taiwanese American community?

Growing up, I spoke Taiwanese and Mandarin with my family, so it is important to me to sustain my understanding of my culture through languages. I have noticed that there are fewer and fewer Taiwanese-American people who can speak Taiwanese, which makes me sad that this beautiful language is being lost generation after generation. In hopes of reconnecting with my roots, especially as I spend even more time far away from home to attend college, I tried my best to develop a translator for English to Taiwanese called BobaWay. What I mean is that anyone can make a difference to solve a problem in the world, so you don’t have to be afraid to share something you create, because just one small move can inspire a lot of people.

Learn more about Taliyah and her other projects at her YouTube channel and Instagram!

🧋 Here’s how you can try BobaWay 🧋

First, open this link and click on the green Run button:

Then, go to this link on any device:

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