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  • Jack Lau

¡Hola! No more Language Barrier?


Feliz domingo (Happy Sunday in Spanish).

Yeah, we have been a bit less productive in the past weeks. Took a crash course in Spanish. Please don't ask why. Just feel like that is the right thing to do. After all these years, seemed to have lost that part of the brain cells to learn new language. And, we thought we could challenge that. So wrong!

Two conclusions: 1. Spanish is a lot of fun and it is widely spoken. 2. Yes, we have definitely lost that part of the brain cells, if not more… It is somewhat humiliating that we could stare at the Spanish phrases we spent hours studying. But when called upon, well… what can we say, "They look foreign."….

Nonetheless, we highly recommend all you brave young souls to try that. And, if you fail like we do, try all sort of on line tools to help. The good news is that there are tools on line such as Spanishdict.com powered by Microsoft, SDL, and PROMT. You type in whatever, the translation immediately spits out. Yes, you can of course use Google translate too. But, that does not explain the translations.

Well, we know Microsoft but are not familiar with the other two. It turns out that SDL is a UK listed company with a market cap of £400 million pounds and a revenue of about £300 million pounds. (Very interesting company. They have an anti-slavery policy, and the bios of the management looks interesting. Rather than bragging all the corporate experiences, the bio of the CEO talks about sailing. Fun. We like that.)

We feel that language barrier, which leads to many cultural misunderstanding, is a problem that needs to be solved. After all, as Disney's tag line says, "It is a small, small world".

But, learning a new language in the traditional way --- going to classes, memorizing everything, practicing, is virtually impossible for most humans after the age of 7 (We are just guessing).

It is perhaps more likely that we will see a C3P0 (the silly looking gold droid in Star Wars) down the road. But, even that is not desirable. We think that it is more likely there will be eyeglasses or headsets that can do simultaneous translations and visual recognition instantaneously.

The fundamental technologies seem to be here. We have been using the Microsoft Translator (a free app on smart phones) with amazing satisfaction. (Well, it is not super instantaneous, but it is free and it works so many languages).

But, what is lacking are Asian languages (Malay, Indonesia, Thai, and many more…). Here is a chance for friends who are well versed in those languages to contribute. Scholars and users in many regions (including Hong Kong where people predominately speak the local Chinese dialect of Cantonese) should take advantage. We think that even governments should chip in. (Yes, smart city, where people can communicate smartly with no language barrier!) And, we think that we should separate the computer science part of this effort from the linguistic side. If we can have tools which allow the mass to contribute with little understanding of programming. Imagine a tool in which locals who are bilingual can just contribute in the long term and on a continuous basis on translations (image and text)…. Don't necessary see anything like that yet. Anyone?

Adiós. ¡Hasta pronto!


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