Society

4 Ways the World Will Change When Language Barriers Fall

People talking

courtesy flickr/peanutlen

Today, there are 7 billion people in the world speaking roughly 6,000 languages.  One day, they’ll all be able to talk to each other naturally, without knowing any language except their own.  This has some powerful implications for many areas of society, and we’ll take a look at four of them below.  But first, allow me to justify the premise.  Is a post-language-barrier world really possible?

If you look at the current state of translation software, you could be forgiven for thinking the answer is “no.”  Machine-translated documents, I’m told, are expensive and poorly done.  Meanwhile, free software like Babelfish tends to translate word-by-word, resulting in hilarious word salads.

How to Automate Translation

But as I once wrote, I think Watson the computer would be very good at translation.  That’s because Watson, unlike ordinary computers, can find references that connect to multiple concepts at the same time.  So if we put him to work on translation, he could take in the meaning of an entire phrase and translate that, rather than the individual words.

Another way to do it would be to implement machine-learning algorithms.  Suppose Babelfish offers you a ridiculous translation, but you can figure out what’s intended.  If you could submit a more sensible translation, it could remember that the next time there’s a similar situation.  Over time, after being corrected by many users, it would get better at rendering phrases the same way an actual speaker would.

Finally, if brain-computer interfaces grow sufficiently advanced, we might be able to connect our minds to computers, and communicate without using words at all.

I’m not saying these solutions would be cheap or easy, at least not at first.  I just wanted to show that I’m not completely out to lunch with my prediction:  a future where automated translation will be incredibly accurate, relatively seamless and accessible to a majority of people (most likely via mobile internet applications).

Bishop and Imam shaking hands

courtesy flickr/itzafineday

Four Ways the World Will Change

Now, the fun part.  What would such a world look like?  Here are 4 major areas that I think would be most affected, though there are surely others.  Please add your own ideas in the comments.

  1. International Business.  The benefits are obvious.  Management, negotiation and communication would be frictionless, no matter where your clients/partners/employees are located.  That means more efficiency, productivity and ultimately money.
  2. Literature.  This is a mixed bag.  The goodnews is, any published writing would be instantly readable by anyone in the world.  Readers could devour Indonesian novels, Japanese comics and Lithuanian articles with abandon.  Writers would have a much larger potential audience for their work.The bad news is that translating literature is much harder than simply communicating the content.  There will be subtleties that are specific to the language of composition.  These add texture, rhythm, and meaning to the text, which means any decent translator has to make some choices that are purely aesthetic.  It’s unlikely a machine could do this, so I sure hope there are still some human translators around by then.
  3. Travel.  Imagine: no more shocking snafus at Moroccan hotels; no more hilarious taxicab misunderstandings in Turkey; and no more stuttered, half-fluent pidgin conversations with old French men in Parisian laundromats.  This would make me very sad.On the plus side, without language barriers, world travel in general would be much more popular.  And those who do travel would be more likely to go somewhere exotic.  Experiencing other cultures is good for you, and for the world.
  4. Cultural worldview.  This is a tricky one, because there are so many factors at play.  But a cursory analysis suggests that sharing a language with people on the other side of the border would ease communication, reduce cross-cultural misunderstandings and perhaps even lessen xenophobia.  Maybe if we could talk with people from other countries as easily as we do our family and friends, they would seem less like “the other” and more like fellow citizens of the world.One can only hope.

So that’s my list.  What do you think?  How do you picture the world sans language barriers?  Or am I ridiculous for even thinking this is possible?  Let us know in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “4 Ways the World Will Change When Language Barriers Fall

  1. Pingback: The One Who Speaks All Languages | Freelance Science Writing

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