Star Trek VI: will computers ever emulate the charm of human language learners?

For some reason, seeing Christopher Plummer in the running for his [now confirmed] Oscar for his role in Beginners, made me remember him playing the role of General Chang in Star Trek VI. I hadn’t watched a Star Trek movie in ages, so I decided to resurrect a golden oldie over the weekend. Star Trek fans may remember that the Klingon-language dialogue figures quite prominently throughout Star Trek VI…

“We must respond personally–the Universal Translator would be recognized”

I’ve actually never been one to get swept up in the idea of learning to speak Klingon, but there was something about the context of a particular scene that I found quite interesting. If you’re not familiar with the world of Star Trek, it’s set in the 23rd century and is full of futuristic gadgets and interplanetary space drama. Whenever there is a conversation between life forms, crossing the language barrier is often done with the help of the computer’s ‘Universal Translator‘. In this scene, however, they can’t use it because they’re trying to be sneaky and, as Chekov (Walter Koenig) says, they must “respond personally”, because the other side would easily recognize the sounds and patterns of the universal translator”. It’s a funny little scene with a crowd of people flipping through English-Klingon dictionaries and grammar books to help Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) communicate in very broken Klingon.  English subtitles like “We am thy freighter” help to approximate how awkward it would sound to Klingon ears. I’m sure that it was only meant to be a silly comedic moment in the movie, but I think there’s something deeper we can take away from this.

There will always be social value in learning languages

I’ve already seen people talking about the many things that the mid-20th century Star Trek essentially ‘got right’ about the future, including the hand-held tricorder (see bel0w). As the power and ubiquity of our gadgets continues to get closer to the world of science-fiction, we often hear folks talking about the idea that language learning will someday become irrelevant because computers will do all the work for us.  For example, with the announcement of Siri on the latest iPhone, isn’t it fair for us to assume that the power of google translate, voice recognition and other innovations like Word Lens will soon conspire to make it possible to communicate directly with people who speak other languages with little fuss?

Add this to the incredible amount of social privilege that native English speakers currently enjoy simply because we grew up speaking the Lingua Franca of the day, it’s not surprising to hear people wonder “Why bother even trying to learn another language if we don’t have to?”.    I think that this Star Trek scene offers us an opportunity to consider the things that our machines *cannot* do for us.

Flickr image “iPhone vs Tricorder” by jdhancock

 The very fact that you are trying to learn someone’s language communicates a message of respect.

It’s sometimes said that “people really like it” when you learn to speak some of their language.  If we dig a little deeper, however, my feeling is that people simply feel respected, and it opens up the channels of communication just a little bit more.    This is especially true for situations that involve native speakers of English– in most situations, it’s the English-language learner who bears most of the stress of the language learning process.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there are times when a simple sentence (even poorly pronounced) can, in an instant, communicate that you understand at least some the challenges inherent in learning to speak another language. On the other hand, if you are using machine translation/interpretation, or can afford to hire a personal interpreter, none of the above holds true–Believe it or not, even learning how to properly pronounce common names in a given language can be a huge positive step.

“If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann muessen Sie Deutsch sprechen.” – Willy Brandt

I’ve always loved this quote from Willy Brandt–you don’t even need to understand German (which I don’t) in order to divine the essence of the last bit.   At the end of the day, this isn’t only true between speakers of German and English, it really does speak to the fact that, when it comes to choosing the language that is spoken in any given context, power comes into play. (more on this subject in a great  paper called “Linguistic justice”, by Phillipe Van Parijs). When we extend this question of ‘what’s the value in learning another language?’ to the level of international business and diplomacy, I really don’t think that we can underestimate the power of what your efforts to learn another language will communicate.

All that to say that I believe there will always be a place for human language learning that technology will not be able to take away. Advances in machine translation/interpretation will continue to thrill and delight; however, I think people will be able to see through them for the foreseeable future.  It’s a bit like the difference between acquaintances  who can’t remember your birthday without a software/app reminder and those kindred souls who remember all of the astrology signs in your circle of friends. In your heart of hearts, you know who remembers your birthday (and you know how many you’d forget without the help of technology).

On so many levels, this is an amazing time to be learning languages. Technology can help us tremendously, but I try not to forget the goal is to enrich human connection and interaction. I still think we’re a long way from automating the process of human respect and fostering friendship. Will we ever get to the point where robots can consistently emote, persuade, deceive and otherwise elicit genuine feelings in human beings? Who knows—I think, for me at least, that asking these kinds of questions is part of the attraction of the whole Star Trek world that Gene Roddenberry created.

“The human race is not nearly enough in awe of its own capabilities.  My picture of the future is not so much one of developing new technologies as it is of developing new insights into human nature.” Edward Hall “The Dance of Life”

“A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules; a language is a flash of the human spirit, it’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.” Wade Davis @ TED


6 thoughts on “Star Trek VI: will computers ever emulate the charm of human language learners?

  1. Pingback: Closer to the Universal Translator « Wordsummit

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  5. Reblogged this on Wordsummit and commented:

    Looks like like two teams are in the final running for the Tricorder Xprize—the idea of this kind of technology coming to the consumer in the near future is awe-inspiring.

    I joked about the Universal Translator in this post a few years ago—-somehow I don’t think that technology is much farther away…. technologically, this is an extraordinary time to be alive!!

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