The Linguistic Worlds of Technology

by multilingualmania on July 6, 2011

in Language Learning

Technology
The World Wide Web and modern communication technologies have been connecting people around the globe, and technology is further changing how we interact. Languages seemingly play ever less of a role as we all come together in one global techno-culture, and gain ever more technological crutches to aid in communication. Some of these developments are truly fascinating, approaching the point where (as Arthur C. Clarke suggested) advanced technology appears like magic. Oftentimes, however, the feeling of being ever more easily connected only hides the increasing separation between different groups, not least linguistic ones.

Going online as part of one’s daily routine, whether it is business or pleasure, it is easy not to notice: everything is just as it is, whether it is in the circle of colleagues, (Facebook) friends, or in news and entertainment. Even the aliens our various science fiction explorers encounter tend to speak English, and the “language” of conservatives already feels alien enough to a liberal, and vice versa. Unless you have some Facebook friends whose status updates betray this seeming unification via the English (or one’s own, other) language, it seems as if language were no problem anymore.

Additionally, there is the magic of technology: You can get instant translations of sites that are not in a language you speak. Google’s Chrome web browser even automatically tells you which language a foreign language-website is in and asks whether you want a translation. This magic has even begun to move IRL – in(to) real life. Just install Word Lens with a language module, and you get one-click translations of text that you point your iPhone’s camera at. The Chinese dictionary app Pleco, after installing the OCR module, does the same for Chinese (see the demo on YouTube). Install the audio pronunciation module, and you can even get the words spoken to you, pronounced as they should be.

Look at the statistics
, and things immediately appear in a different light. English has been and continues to be the dominant language on the internet, but Chinese already comes in at second place. Given the high rate of growth and the large additional room for growth that Chinese has, it could be the language that is most used online from 2015 onwards. Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese and German take the next spots, again reflecting a combination of number of speakers and internet penetration.

Of course, what this also tells us – given our own experience of daily use – is that we do not typically encounter this diversity. We can find the information and entertainment in the language we speak, and we do not even need the voices of people who use the same language, but are of different opinion. Naturally, there is even less interaction in other languages. (This combination of wide availability of websites in their first language and parochialism of internet users helps explain why Chinese internet users hardly complain about the unavailability – due to censorship – of certain foreign websites. The comparison is not entirely justified, but just imagine you couldn’t reach Chinese websites – how much of an impact would it have on your daily internet use? Same with the average Chinese user…)

Translation technology is also a mixed bag. So far, machine translation is typically just going word by word. The results, though better than nothing (especially in a language like Chinese where the writing presents the foreigner with particular hurdles), are oftentimes at least as comic as they are useful – if not more so. Technology may progress to the point, as has been suggested, where you can hold near-real time conversations with a language module running in between, speaking as if both spoke the same language. We are far enough away from that, though, and do not always have all technology available and ready to use. What’s more, there is still a difference between having a technological crutch to help and having acquired a skill ourselves – and, whereas prosthetics may get to the point of being better than actual limbs, translation technology is rather unlikely to express our thoughts better than we do ourselves, in languages we actually speak.

About the Author: Gerald Zhang-Schmidt is an independent scholar with a background in ecology and cultural anthropology, writing about his interests at www.zhang-schmidt.com, www.beyond-eco.org and www.chilicult.com. He hails from Austria, and currently works as German lecturer in China. During his career, he has learned something of nine languages and forgotten much of it again.

Other Articles by Gerald Zhang-Schmidt:
What Multilingualism?
What Languages Do You Speak?
Not a Child Anymore

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