Monday, January 24, 2011

Taking a Wrecking Ball to the Tower of Babel

At about 40:30, this sensational documentary by Hans Rosling talks about the efforts Google is making in real-time translation so people speaking different languages can communicate in a flash. I'm still parsing through my thoughts on it. On the one hand, it is fascinating and mind-blowing that this technology can exist.

My torn-ness revolves around the place of the variety of different languages that there are. Does language difference serve a purpose? Sapir, Whorf, and the theory of linguistic relativity would say that because these people speak different languages, they think differently, at least to an extent. So does it go the other way too? Does diversity of language reflect the nuances in culture? This is getting a little out of my purview, but it makes me think— is there any advantage to having the thousands of different languages that people across the globe speak? In this global age, is it just a burden to progress? The idea of getting people across the world able to communicate has been around for ages, probably not even starting with the creators of Esperanto. But why don't we speak Esperanto these days? I really don't know. It seems awesome to me. Did it fail because it was a synthetic language?

But this Google project seems a little different. It lets people have the cultural differences, to allow them those nuances that their language provides them, and then translates it. There is a reason why the term "lost in translation" exists. Can Google's gizmo get good enough at translating the extra-linguistic nuances? This becomes super relevant then with the real-time audio translation. Supralinguistic features of language (inflection, intonation, etc.) are different across different languages. Will Google's translator-voice take that into account? I mean, even human translation is not perfect...

I'm excited to see what comes of this. Imagine the globalization opportunities!


  1. But why don't we speak Esperanto these days? I really don't know. It seems awesome to me. Did it fail because it was a synthetic language?

    We do speak Esperanto! Just not everyone. A couple of million speakers or so are scattered around the world and use it as a bridge to people from other cultures who speak other languages.

    While Esperanto hasn't taken the world by storm, it hasn't failed, either. I personally think that ignorance and misconception are the two greatest obstacles Esperanto faces right now. Those who find out about Esperanto and look past the misconceptions to learn and use it find that it works very well. It's growing now, and as long as that continues, it will eventually reach a critical mass and take off.

    BTW, most Esperanto speakers see Esperanto, not as a replacement for other languages, but as a common, easy-to-learn second language for all. Instead of discarding all the uniqueness that the world's linguistic ecosystem represents, keep it, and use easy-to-learn Esperanto to communicate with someone who doesn't speak your language.

  2. Esperanto certainly has not failed.

    The Esperanto study course is now receiving 120,000 hits per month.

    That can't be bad :)