The Universal Translator: Good or Bad?

I’ve been seeing articles and videos regarding this tiny little device that claims to be a “universal translator”. For those of you who don’t know, though the term itself is pretty self-explanatory, this is a device that supposedly translates any language being spoken into the native language of the user. It’s a frequently seen apparatus in science fiction, most notably in shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who.

Now, as an avid language learner, you might think I’d laud this device and say it’s wonderful. However, the truth is, that I have some quite mixed feelings. Indeed, it does ease communication between people through technology. But it also presents a new stage in what I call “cultural laziness”. I’m not a fan of how many societies, particularly Western ones, have a disdain for learning languages in general, only because they can get away with not speaking other languages. Other people are not so lucky, where their native environments are multilingual by nature.

Maybe I shouldn’t even call it “being lucky”, because I think it’s a great thing to be born into a multilingual environment. The point is that I think that this translation device isn’t really a good thing on a cultural communication standpoint, since it doesn’t encourage people to truly learn a language and appreciate it. Translation is a filter, and not everything passes cleanly through it. Nuance and other subtleties of meaning are not easily translated, even by human translators, so I don’t expect the device to do the job any better, at least not for a while.

As the article itself points out, the device requires all participants in a conversation to be wearing the device for it to be effective, which can be a bit of a problem. Not to mention that I’m not sure it will even cover most languages. Translation is something that I think is more necessary for communities where access to other language materials are not easily secured, or where the language is not sufficiently standardized to be widely known. This means that interpreters and translators are of better use to minority communities rather than majorities.

I could go on and on about the ways I don’t necessarily like the device. However, I do think it has its merits in making communication easier. I am concerned about its impact on the art and culture of language learning. We should not abandon language learning entirely in favor of a device that will do the work for us. I understand that people are not naturally inclined toward working like that, but it is important that we maintain some amount of sociocultural work ethic rather than always depend on technology to do it for us.

Whether the device is good or bad has yet to be proven, and only time will tell.

I hope you enjoyed reading this brief article. I welcome anyone’s thoughts on the topic. I haven’t been writing for a while because I’ve become very busy at school. I will try to write more in the future!

Duolingo: Hope for Minority Languages?

Recently, I had a conversation with one of my friends about the reason some languages die out or fade into obscurity among certain populations. In the United States, many children of immigrants do not grow up speaking the language of their parents. This can be attributed to a variety of reasons, including a fear of persecution, a desire for the children to have better competence in English, or the idea that the mother tongue is “useless”. I’m not going to discuss these reasons at length; that’s for another post. The topic at hand is the use of Duolingo to teach children languages. It has a reasonably entertaining interface with which children can interact and learn. A few different non-mainstream languages are already on Duolingo, including Polish, Norwegian, and Turkish.

Duolingo’s presence as a language-learning application has great significance for those attempting to protect minority languages. The Incubator function allows open source contributions to develop courses that people can use to learn. If motivated and enabled speakers of, say, Quechua, we’re so inclined, they might be able to build a course. As mentioned in Ineptitude’s post on Duolingo and Conlangs, there is nothing to stop contributors so long as there is demand and people willing to build these courses. For the purposes of reviving and protecting languages, this is a great tool, because many children across the world are leading lives more and more integrated with technology. By introducing children to Duolingo from an early age, people can promote language literacy and proficiency in children greatly. For immigrant parents, it could mean the difference between their children being disconnected from or more in touch with their culture. 

I am actually planning to discuss such a project with my regional Kannada Koota, which is a sort of convention or organization for Kannada speakers in the United States. Their mission is to preserve and promote the Kannada language. If young Kannadiga Americans are able to learn Kannada through an entertaining app that fits in well with their lifestyle, it will be highly beneficial to the preservation of our language abroad.

Minority languages without writing systems or formalized traditions are often said to be disadvantaged by the advancement of technology, but that doesn’t have to be true if people are motivated to protect and preserve them. If you have any thoughts on this, please share them in the comments.

The Conflict of Language Purity and Language Evolution

Many people across the world feel that their mother tongues or national language is threatened by the presence of English as a universal lingua franca. Over the years, the growth of the US as a superpower, and the preponderance of Great Britain in the Imperial Age as a major power has driven English into the communities of many countries. Languages import words from English to accommodate technological advances, and in a rapidly advancing age, some languages may find it difficult to keep up.

In an effort to keep languages alive and in use, communities across the world advocate a sort of linguistic purification, in which all imported words of English origin (or other ones for that matter) are not accepted as a part of the standard language. Due to the nature of language evolution, which (as I see it) is to tend toward simplicity, efficiency, and conciseness, this view of language presents a bit of a problem.

A policy to purify language is inherently difficult to legislate anything regarding language, as it is hard to change the way one communicates every day. In places like India, where there are multiple, distinct regional languages, it would be an extremely difficult task to change even the use of Hindi, as has been proven in the past. Movements to stop using words of Arabic and Persian origin held some ground for a time in India, but ultimately fell apart, due to the difficulty of using Sanskrit-ized Hindi. Sanskrit, as a classical language that fell out of use long ago, has not had any time to develop in the modern era, which accounts for a lack of technological vocabulary. Also, it hasn’t been exposed to much colloquial or public use over an extended period of time, and therefore, the structures in the language have not simplified to suit modern use. It made little sense to import a slew of difficult-to-pronounce words into the language of everyday life and thereby slow down communication. Sure, given time, it might have worked, but Sanskrit was well past its time, and it was largely reserved to the higher classes of Indian society and liturgical use, even in its heyday. Therefore, most academic discussion in STEM fields in India is often conducted in English rather than Hindi, making it more a language of the masses than one of science and technology. This has occurred in a similar manner for the regional languages.

Despite complaints that a language is no longer, “pure”, it is important to recognize that the import of words into a language does not necessarily mean the language itself will die. Borrowing words does not imply the replacement of the language, as demonstrated by languages such as Hindi and Tagalog. Hindi developed a flourishing and beautiful literary tradition under Mughal rule and borrowed many words from Arabic and Farsi, and the language is still in rather lively use today. Tagalog’s use of many Spanish words allowed it to develop a significant urban use, as these words allowed communication about modern technology and life. As a result, Tagalog is alive and well in the Philippines.

Therefore, I believe that it is counterintuitive and counterproductive to promote or impose “purity” of a language. As much as I’d hate to admit it, it cannot be helped that English is used instead of other languages in academic fields.The only reason that English has it all, is because much of modern technology was developed, documented, and researched in English-speaking, or at least Western, countries. However, I think that this allows languages to develop in other ways. The English language and the proliferation of technology across the world has brought many societies up to speed, and open up a number of opportunities for those societies to innovate themselves. When those innovations were brought to nations without those things, such as Britain brought things to India, they were a sort of anachronism, and the languages experienced a jump in time, so to speak. It is important to recognize the nature of language evolution and that it cannot be stopped or rewound.

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