Speaking in Tongues
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Editorial ISBN/ITEM#: ED_Mar06
Date: March 1, 2006 / Show Official Info /
I hate not being able to understand people when I travel, in fact, I'd say that I don't travel to far off lands as much because the pain of linguistic isolation is as great as the pain of paying for airfare.
Here at home its not like I'm insulated from other tongues either, especially since my regular circuit of travel takes me from DC to NYC to LA to Vegas...all cosmopolitan centers. I remarked to a friend of mine that the stress I'd once felt at having to cope with the emergence of Spanish as an American tongue was nothing compared to the impact of third and second world Diasporas leading to this land of opportunity. The irony that the US is is both reviled by and a destination of choice deserves its own piece, so I won't go there, but suffice to say that no matter where you go, there your language challenges are.
It's not just wanting to say thank you to a cabbie in Vegas, its about wanting to crack the code that people from other cultures often like to hide behind. I've worked in the sciences, and believe me when I tell you that companies would far rather hire foreign scientists and bring them here than to hire domestic ones. It is all a cost benefit thing, but as far as communications go, it's a nightmare.
Then there's the frequent accusation that Americans don't get the rest of the world and are just plain isolationists at heart because we don't speak other tongues. The tongue that's really got me twisted is Chinese, which, yes - know, is actually a whole bunch of tongues. Latin derivative languages I can often puzzle out, but Chinese? Not. Which brings me back to the universal translator.
I'd say the software should be ready in another five years or so, and that the hardware is ready now. It might be too bulky to take with you at first, but that's what cell phones are for, as Bruce Sterling pointed out in his very nice short story, "In Paradise" which leads off his Visionary In Residence collection debuting this month. Even if you can't take it with you, all the processing power you could hope for is just a phone call away.
There will be a downside, I'm sure, and probably one I can't imagine, though two things worry me right of the bat. First, when we can finally talk to everyone, will we be unable to hide the fact that we don't see eye to eye? It's a very human tactic to avoid conflict by pretending to fail to comprehend the issue. If we made the translators too well, they might tell us or our listeners more than we planned. Consider how much information is packed into speech via inflection, be it from regional accent, emotion, or other secondary affect. Translators might well cut through the euphemistic veneer of civil-speak and deliver the bad news up front. Of course, it might be handy to have them translate our words back to ourselves to see what we're really trying to say occasionally.
Second, I wonder whether we'll lose our linguistic diversity, or at the other extreme, begin talking in tongues unique to each of us. Consider that if you were wired into a UT a birth it might well be able to articulate your needs far better than you could. The hungry infant cry could be eloquently translated into, "Mother, could I please have some warm milk? I realize that you would rather spoon mashed squash into my mouth, but to do so would surely violate the precepts of evolution." The next thing you know, you'll have cats and dogs talking, though one expects they would have a limited span of subjects and only appear to be good listeners. What one wonders is what the consequences of giving them the ability to speak would have? It's a question that Ken MacLeod ponders in his book Learning the World when his star faring humans uplift a slave species of alien in a reversal of the classic alien human experimentation.
The more I think about it, the less sure I want to know what people are really saying to me, or what they mean by it. Though I expect we'd get used to the truth after a while. Or a generation or two. I have it on good authority that my great grandfather turned his hearing aid off in order to avoid haveing to listen to my grandmother's admonishions, and I'd hate to see a good idea like that be silenced forever.