Monday, December 27, 2010

The Future of English

"As Anglo-American hegemony withers, the influence of English will decline; but what succeeds it will not be any other single language," argues the author of the book Deborah Cameron reviews here — "The Last Lingua Franca" by Nicholas Ostler. "Thanks to advances in computer translation," he argues, "we will see a technologically-enabled return to a state of Babel" (and I will be seeking a new line of work).

Wisely, Prof. Cameron suggests, "Here it might be objected that Ostler's argument depends on an unrealistic techno-optimism, and puts too much emphasis on the supposed primeval bond between speakers and their mother tongues, which some would say is largely an invention of 19th-century European nationalism."

Michael Skapinker, whose reviews the same book, agrees, "I am sceptical, having long regarded computer translation as one of the most reliable forms of contemporary comedy." More pointedly, he continues, "Can we really imagine a world in which people speak into their computers and their opposite numbers puzzle at what comes out the other side?"

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3 Comments:

Blogger Kevin Jones said...

The early PDAs tried to train their users to write in a new alphabet the devices could recognized.

I can imagine a new spoken dialect designed for easy computer translation. Speakers must use simple sentences stripped of all nuance, subtlety and humor.

It will be another avenue for the bureaucratization of thought.

1:23 AM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

First, it will be awhile before computer translation is at the point where it is a viable substitute for some kind of working universal language for trade, foreign relations, airline traffic control, international conferences for scholars, etc.

Second, English will stick around because: 1) it has reached a critical mass of second-language speakers; 2) it is easier than other up and coming competitors like Chinese.

I was talking to a friend of mine who lives in Norway and teaches Norwegian classes for immigrants there. When not speaking Norwegian in class -- e.g., when explaining basic gramatical concepts, etc. -- he uses English because that is the one other language that he says that everybody in his classes -- Italians, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Russians, already share in common.

4:12 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

The idea that computer translation would be "another avenue for the bureaucratization of thought" is very perceptive and frightening.

I agree that English will be around for a while, just as Greek was. The New Testament, after all, was written in that language even though Rome was the politcal power.

In more than ten years, I've only had one student naive enough to submit a computer translated essay. It was so laughable, I wish I had saved it. And I was recently sent a computer translated from German, and as close as that language is, it was almost unreadable.

7:39 AM  

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