Lost in translation

English is becoming the de-facto standard for an educated life. As a non-native speaker, you may be subsidizing this development. But will new technology thwart the rise of English?

When I was an infant, I would quite often find my father sat down in the evening to read Russian literature. Not Dostoevksy or Tolstoy, however; he was reading actual Russian texts on the topic of chess. See, my father is not of Russian heritage, nor did he learn the language in school. What he was looking for in his books was information about the game he loves, about his – then – profession. Soviets have dominated chess throughout most of the 20th century. In fact, since Alekhine’s victory in 1927, the world chess championship was in firm Soviet hands – except for only two short stints due to Euwe and Fisher – until Kramnik finally lost it to the Indian Anand in 2007.

A photo showing the cover and one page from an old Russian chess book.
A look inside an old Russian book about chess. (© My father, who is a bad photographer, but a good chess player.)

If you are a researcher, and you are not a native English speaker, you find yourself in a similar situation to my father. It is about the same time as when Alekhine secured the chess title for the Soviet Union, that English started to become the scientific standard, a trend set up by the expansion of the British empire, supported by the rise of the USA as an industrial and military power and sealed by the events of World War II. Nowadays, English is a de-facto monopoly in academia and business and is in a pole position to become the language of a global people. It is perhaps for this reason, that you never truly considered it unfair that you have to conduct your profession in English. But you should be skeptical, not only about fairness, but also about the further rise of English!

The inherent disadvantage for non-native speakers

The reason most of us are learning English at some point during our education is not because it is easier to learn difficult skills when they are taught in English. Nor is it easier to develop complex products in English. But, in order to apply our skills or promote our products we collaborate with other people, increasingly so internationally – and in English! In fact, non-native speakers have a serious disadvantage to overcome. Communicating, presenting, negotiating … how they are perceived is earned in English.

I do not think that this struggle ever truly ends. I believe that at some point we maybe just get used to it, or we become proficient enough in English that bigger struggles occupy our attention. You would probably laugh hearing that academia is already attending to this issue… theoretically, by dedicating an entire journal to it! But to illustrate the essence, a simple anecdote shall suffice.

An anecdote about amazing and less amazing English speakers

Assume you work in an institution whose main or sole product is the generation or communication of ideas, some kind of a think tank. But, yes, we are talking PhDs, consultants, etc., in fact, most jobs that are associated with achieving high education. Welcome to your career, in which you will be stuck in life-long competition and cooperation with other English speakers, say Louise and Gunther, respectively.

Louise is a Massachusetts native working in the same field as you and is of similar professional ability. She is well recognized because her work stands out and is well remembered. In particular, her verbal expression resonates with that special, playful confidence of a native speaker who knows exactly how many rules they have to break to capture your attention in a given context, darting back-and-forth between the expected and the unexpected. At times, you could swear that the very spirit of the American English speaks through her work: a trinity of politeness, enthusiasm, and salesmanship.

Whenever Louise presents in the same session as you, you wave Good-Bye to that best-talk-award. And as soon as Louise starts working on a topic that you had your eyes on, you steer clear. The ability to speak and write well, i.e., the ability to use language, is after all one of the most powerful there is, and you are not quite on Louise’s level.

While you are trying your best to climb up to the level of Louise, you are being dragged down by your boss, Gunther. Gunther is a non-native speaker like you and he edits all of your work before publishing. However, he speaks in a way that you would only consider acceptable if your were already way beyond your Ballmer peak.

A Gunther would totally take Tina up on her offer. (Dilbert © Scott Adams. Used by permission of Andrews McMeel Syndication. All rights reserved.)

To somehow manage, Gunther has a fixed expectation of how the English language is supposed to be used in his field. This expectation is formed by his collection of style guides about academic English, that he probably refers to you after having read your work for the first time, expecting you to study them meticulously. Gunther is so fixated on these stylistic rules, that he cannot help it but notice each time you break one of them and mark it with a comment. If you think, you have no flow while writing, think about Gunther’s flow while reading or rather stumbling through your text. Every minute you and Gunther (two laymen in the question) spend discussing the proper use of academic, business, or legal English, Louise gets a minute ahead of you.

Friction in communication

While Louise and Gunther are caricatures, it is indisputable that we are introducing friction into daily work by imperfect use of language. This friction slows down progress on the areas we are supposed to work on and leads to mutual frustration. Using a language that is not our most proficient, increases this friction artificially by reducing our intellectual “bandwidth” and increasing the probability of misunderstanding or superficial understanding. Communicating in English has its price for non-native speakers:

First, Louise will always be ahead of you!

And second, in the grander scheme of things: Can two people truly discuss a matter that is on the verge of their own understanding – or even of academic understanding – in a language that does not allow them their full cognitive bandwidth?

Is a course correction needed?

My father speaks 7 languages well. Unfortunately, Russian, the one he needed for chess, was not one of them. It is still common that specific language requirements are attached to certain positions like representing a domestic company in a specific foreign market. Did you know that, if all member states of the G20 – except the EU – insisted on communicating in their official languages, a whopping 91 language pairings would have to be interpreted? For a singular purpose: international communication and cooperation.

A hegemonic language creates advantages for those who go along with it

Evidently, global-scale collaboration and coexistence are more effective when there is one common language, say English, shared across all people. All international communities, whether business, research or international culture, can be organized in that language without unnecessary interference with regional affairs. Even the “competitive integrity” of professionals, that is, equal chances at successful careers, would be best protected if all people were taught, say English, from infancy.

The internet, as a powerful education resource, supports this transition, and non-native speakers, perhaps unwillingly, are subsidizing it. Yet, every individual willing to sacrifice the comfort of their native language is also profiting from more job opportunities opened up to them, as well as the ability to access more information, education and reach more people through the internet. Not all of us are profiting equally, but in this case, I believe, trying to resist change incurs a higher cost than allowing it. We are used to the fact that things are frequently changing, and even something as fundamental to our culture as language is not exempt from that.

The world is always evolving (drawn by me)

Linguistic diversity is worthy of preservation

What I do grieve, however, is a potential loss of linguistic diversity. According to the hypothesis of linguistic relativity, the language we express ourselves in shapes the perception of our world. Cultural differences are to some extent represented by their respective languages. For instance, a famous piece of trivia claims that Inuit have up to 50 words for snow. On the other hand, a single symbol in Japanese, called a kanji, can have different meanings and pronunciations depending on the context (this feature is inherent to logographic symbols as opposed to the phonemic symbols)! I like to think that, therefore, speaking Japanese fosters associative and creative thought.

Hand drawing of Japanese kanji for the numbers 1 to 10.
I wrote down the kanji for the numbers 1 to 10 from memory. I made, like, 17 mistakes in total. Can you find them all?

For me, the promise of a multicultural people is predicated on the existence and active use of multiple languages. What about you? Would you like to live in a world where everyone thinks like business-Englishmen, like German clerks or like French philosophers? Both, the pain of transition, and the loss of some things we hold dear are inevitable. The world is always transitioning, and we are always evolving trying to catch up. There are reasons to mourn the loss of the old but there is necessity to adapt to the new. And new technology affecting human communication is looming on the horizon, some of which may even alleviate the pressure of professionals to become proficient English speakers.

Innovating away from English

In business administration terminology, we can roughly think of innovations either affecting the business model, some process or the product itself. The business model of a think tank, which is, more or less, set in stone, is the generation, demonstration, and communication of ideas. Only the latter has an effect on the potential outreach of the ideas and, therefore, demands English. Any rational entity should outsource communication to professional translators if that leads to a net gain in productivity. In a world where research institutions pay money out of their own pocket to have articles published as free-access, it is not too far-fetched to assume a market for academic translation. In fact, offers for translation from Chinese to English already exist.

However, people working in think tanks usually have themselves a vested interest in writing in English to advance a key career skill. We will consider two technological innovations that could reduce the required proficiency in English and, thus, make people more open to delegate writing, whenever it is still mandatory.

Machine translation

The first innovation is the ubiquitous automation. In the present time, machine learning and artificial intelligence are invading all areas of life and even conquering some of them. One area where human-level performance has already been attained is translation (the field-specific term being natural language processing).

As a small demonstration, some paragraph of this post has been written by me completely in German and translated with DeepL. Can you tell which one? I am pretty sure there are already people writing entire publications using DeepL. But not only translation can be automated. You may have already noticed on Youtube that subtitles to conversations can also be generated automatically. Simultaneous translation by machines is thus in the realm of technical possibility and will probably include all known languages in the near future and be accessible to all of us.

Photo of C3P0, the golden humanoid roboter from Star Wars.
Could robot interpreters like C-3P0 from Star Wars become reality? (Photo found on pixabay)

Having a powerful translator at your disposal is great. It helps you to polish your writing and simultaneously improves your linguistic elegance. For me, there is even the rare occasion where I translate from English to German because a fitting English phrase came to my mind first. I hope that people speaking more than a couple of languages can relate! But I am thrilled to see how conferences, vacations and society as a whole will change when simultaneous translation becomes an established technology.

Visual content

A technology that is even more potent – but less generally applicable – is video content. I know that this sounds unspectacular, if you have been waiting for a big reveal towards the end of this post, but hear me out! Visual presentation of information can utterly transcend the limited cognitive bandwidth of language, according to a famous German bon mot by a factor of 1000! And visual information can substitute for language in a variety of ways. Remember how when you start a new language, one of the first things you learn is to ask for and receive directions. Nowadays, with a navigatory device always in your pocket, you could calmly skip that lesson.

This analogy carries over to other types of recipes, like cooking recipes, and scientific recipes. Yes, scientific! If you are an outsider, consider a large body of academic literature as an exchange forum for recipes about efficient ways to compute something. Such mathematical recipes (“methods”) are notoriously hard to read in any language. If the popularity of YouTube channels like 3Blue1Brown is any indication, animations are highly supportive in the quest of understanding maths.

Visual content can be captivating, but also really distracting! (Photo found on pixabay)

Academic content is, too, becoming more and more visual: graphical abstracts illustrating the core idea, visualization of data, animated plots for the online version of the article, Jupyter notebooks showcasing the implementation with examples, preparation of slides, and recorded talks about the work. And I haven’t even accounted for the possibilities of virtual reality yet!

Traditionally, writing is still the holy grail of academia. But visual content with its many advantages has the potential to dethrone writing and thereby lower the bar on English proficiency needed for international outreach. If you want to learn a core skill to get ahead of 21st century competition, maybe you should consider visual content creation!

No Babylon 2.0

If my father was still an active chess player today, he would not bother with Russian. Nor with English. For the most part, chess has already transcended. Chess books have always printed positions visually and provided strategies or move orders of entire matches in “codified chess language”. But the text was there as a commentary aimed at providing context. Why did a player play a certain move? What was the conventional wisdom about her position back when the match was played? What other moves could have improved her position according to experts consulted for the book? Nowadays, computers can evaluate a position and tell you all the best moves in a few seconds. This mostly eliminates the need for context, and in extension, for the use of language.

Digitized version of an old painting of the Tower of Babel during construction, painted by Pieter Bruegel.
No one knows what humanity can accomplish if we all unite (Photo: Pieter Bruegel – The Tower of Babel)

A world without language is unimaginable. Because human existence craves context in form of narratives. But I do believe that more and more areas of our lives will transcend the need for verbal language. Oddly, this development, together with machine translation, could reduce the pressure for individuals to convert to English speakers and thus help in preserving the diversity of spoken languages that makes our world a richer place.

Danimir Doncevic

Danimir is a PhD student at the HDS-LEE graduate school working in the fields of Optimization and Machine Learning for energy systems modeling. During its free capacity, his brains wanders astray trying to figure out models for all kinds of unrelated and often abstract things.

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