Monday, November 30, 2009

Leveling the Language Playing Field

Recently, Jibbigo announced an iPhone app that can translate between Spanish and English, potentially signaling the start of a new wave of speech translation applications. While I do get incredibly geeked out about the technology itself, I'm even more excited about the emergent properties that such technologies enable.

As a general rule, I strongly support breaking down communication barriers in all of its forms -- and the language barrier is one of the largest. In this post, I am referring specifically to the non-English handicap, which can be a tremendous hurdle for non-native speakers to overcome in a world where English has become the de facto international language.

For example, students in countries such as China expend significant effort to learn passable English. Several years back, I spent the summer in Beijing as an English teacher at a small college. I was struck by the low quality of teaching. In fact, one fellow teacher asked me for help in distinguishing nouns from adverbs from prepositions, etc (I wish I was exaggerating) -- something that everyone who passed elementary school should know. What's more, these "teachers" were paid almost thirty times more than standard wage workers. It just felt like highway robbery to me.

Finding success comes from not only taking advantage of the available opportunities, but also from simply having said opportunities in the first place. Upon reflection, it seems silly, although not surprising, that knowing English can be such a competitive advantage in many parts of the world.

In a sense, one can view the fundamental problem as there simply being a scarcity or imbalance of resources. That's why such low quality teachers receive such high compensation -- because that's all that one can get to work in those situations. Technology makes it easier to enable the transfer or creation of new resources, and thus levels the playing field by growing and redistributing the aggregate wealth of our society.

I hope that, in time, this language barrier will fade into irrelevance. And of course, the idea of having universal translators is also just plain damn cool.

1 comment:

Syed Rizvi said...

Nice post Yisong. However I can't help but think about a different side of the 'non-English handicap'. In my country, Pakistan, someone who can speak English has better chances of landing a good job than someone who can't. And even though it upsets me there is not much that can be done about it.

For instance,I have witnessed qualified software engineers being misused by their managers (who can't program themselves but can understand the requirements from their clients in US and Europe).
Without them the software houses can't run. Hence such 'managers' end up earning far more than the engineers who actually do the hard work.

Until universal translators becomes a reality, knowing English will also give a competitive advantage to less skilled labor in some parts of the world.