A war of words: can translation technology end world conflict?

By Oliver Pink

8th June 2017

At a birthday party last weekend, I met a woman from Brazil. We were, as is the season, discussing politics.

Although eloquent, she was visibly frustrated as she talked through her view on the upcoming General Election. As she later explained, she finds that the English language too often refuses her the tools she needs to express herself in the way she would in Portuguese: “you can make people feel something with words, understand your emotions, without necessarily talking about something tangible”. We returned immediately to politics. “English-speaking politicians sound like complete idiots compared to Brazilian politicians,” she continued. I raised an eyebrow.

“You watch the leaders of your parties and see how desperate they are to make an emotional appeal for votes. But their language forces them to commit to facts—facts they don’t want to tie themselves to. In Portuguese, it’s different: you can sound presidential, you can invoke emotion in people without necessarily saying much at all. Our language allows it.”

It got me thinking—how much does language limit or enable our personality? I remembered a Ted Talk delivered by economist Keith Chen back in 2012. He pointed out that in Chinese, the requirement for detail is built into the language. You cannot, for example, say “This is my uncle.” You have no choice but to encode more information about that uncle. “The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger.”

There are many concepts that can be expressed easily in one language but not in another. The first thing people think of when asked about differences between languages is just isolated words, such as English having no equivalent to the German word Schadenfreude, which means ‘pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others’.

The question of whether people think in similar ways and express them through different languages, or whether those languages themselves influence individuals’ cognition, has tickled the academic elite for centuries. Some posit that each language forces you to think in a slightly different way. In 2008, a major study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who are bicultural and speak two languages may actually shift their personalities when they switch from one language to another.

“If you speak two or more languages it trains your brain more,” Maria Christina Cuervo, a Spanish and linguistics professor at the University of Toronto told her local newspaper, The Toronto Star in May this year. “It’s like being more of an athlete.”

The ‘workout’ happens when the brain has to juggle competing vocabularies. For example, an English and French speaker has to decide between saying ‘cat’ or ‘chat’ each time they see one.

“You are thinking of words or structures in two different languages, so you have to suppress one to speak in only one language. Doing this can strengthen the part of the brain that helps us process information and focus.”

In the same article, Chandan Narayan, a linguistics professor at York University is quoted as saying: “There is no doubt that being bilingual, in terms of a humanist perspective, makes us better citizens,” he said, noting that by speaking more than one language, people can make the world a smaller place by being able to communicate with more people. He thinks the social, cultural and cognitive impacts together make a strong case for one to learn more than one language.

So perhaps language is at the heart of world cohesion?

That’s certainly the view of Timo Honkela, who is using artificial intelligence and machine-learning to produce a device he believes will bring about peace. At a conference in Helsinki last month, an audience of international peace brokers from South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Ukraine, Colombia and elsewhere gathered to hear him launch ‘the Peace Machine’.

Among other disciplines, Honkela’s speech cited machine translation as having significantly increased possibilities for human collaboration and communication over the next 10 years.

Jorg Tiedemann, a professor of language technology at the University of Helsinki agrees, believing that translation technology could drastically reduce language-related discrimination. “Language technology is essential in any concept that concentrates on communication and understanding… using that power for reducing misunderstandings and miscommunication is one of the goals of the Peace Machine.”

Honkela uses the concept of the word ‘fair’ to demonstrate his point about language dissent:

If we say, for example, ‘This is not fair,’ we think it’s a fact. But actually, what is being meant by ‘fair’? If we take someone in Dubai and someone in Helsinki, or someone in New York and someone in some other place in the world – those people saying ‘fair,’ what they actually mean by that can be quite different.

“We need deep linguistic cognitive and computational work in order to actually reach the meanings of the words that people use. That includes the fact that not only do we have problems in reaching each other in one language, but of course we have some 7,000 or more languages in the world.”

With news this week that Apple’s Siri is to incorporate a language translation feature in iOS11, albeit with slightly less lofty ambitions, it seems that even the world’s biggest technology company is realising that language could be both the problem and the solution to thousands of years of global discord.