Home / Blog / Megatrends for this decade XXIX

Megatrends for this decade XXIX

The Tower of Babel, where, according to the Bible, human languages differentiated into incompatible ways of expressing meaning. Image of the Tower of Babel painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Google Art Project

21) The vanishing Babel tower

This Megatrend is mine and expands the list of the Megatrends I discussed in the previous posts as proposed by Peter Diamandis. It is about technology overcoming languages barrier.

The top 23 most spoken languages in today’s world. Notice that English, as an example, is counted as a single language although there are several variants. Image credit: InLingua, data source: Ethnologue Languages of the World

There are roughly 6,500 languages spoken in the world today, although most of them are very “local” and on the way to become extinct. Although in the past there were fewer people, more languages were spoken, since communications was more difficult and each small community drifted over time differentiating its language from the ones of surrounding communities.  Of course also in the past there were some sort of common languages, in Europe 2000 years ago it was Latin and (ancient) Greek.

Marco Polo, in his famous report of his voyages to the Cathay, tells us that he learnt new languages on his way to meet the Kublai Khan: Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Mongolian (he didn’t speak Chinese since the Kublai Khan spoke Mongolian) but it took him 4 years to travel from Venice to Beijing, plenty of time to learn a new language (a today’s Marco Polo will cover the distance in about 10 hours, tricky to learn 4 languages in just 10 hours).

It is the quick pace of modern life, the presence of tons of literature written in different languages and the frequent movement of people that has created a real Babel Tower: for the ancient the difference in languages was not a big deal (at least for the great majority of people).

I remember when I was a kid (long time ago) my father telling me that in the world I was to live knowing a foreign language would have given me a competitive edge (and he sent me to study German in Switzerland…).

Now a foreign language has become part of most Countries high school curricula, and in quite a few it is even part of primary school. However we learn different “second languages” in different parts of the world with the result that I am usually lost when I want to communicate with local folks on the other side of the planet.

However the situation is changing and this is the point of this Megatrend: early this year I was in Laos, in the countryside and Laotian is quite a different piece of cake from Italian. Some elderly people spoke French (and that was good), several young people spoke Chinese but that was it. We did manage to establish some form of communications through our smartphones: we typed in an Italian sentence and showed the other party the translation in Laotian, courtesy of Google. I cannot tell if the translation was good or bad, but I can tell that it worked. We were able to communicate.

That was amazing, but it is nothing if compared to what I feel will be possible by the end of this decade: talking in one language and having the other party listening in her language (and vice versa).

Real time translation is becoming state of the art. Google is now offering free translation to from 108 languages, a tiny fraction of the 6,500 spoken in the world but covering basically all the world. The latest addition were:

  • Kinyarwanda,
  • Odia,
  • Tatar,
  • Turkmen, and
  • Uyghur

and I have to confess I didn’t even know they existed, yet Google stated that they are spoken (in total) by some 75 million people. I routinely read articles in Chinese, just by cutting and pasting the text into Google Translator and reading the English version and I know many people doing the same, every single day. Language differences is no longer a barrier.

I find this amazing and I bet that by the end of this decade I will be listening through my wireless headphones to the other party with that language converted, seamlessly, in my language. This is a game changer.

Think about what this will mean for tourism. Not just to you as a tourist, but -more important- to local people in a far away place that will be able to offer you services and experiences, and we know that tourism is evolving in this direction. There are now many Local Guides  and the web is connecting them to the world.
Add to this that by the end of this decade virtual reality will enable to experience many places from our living rooms. we will be able to experience a walk in a souk in Istambul and talk to local people in Turkish, then flip to the souk in Marrakesh and talk to the spice sellers in Arabic. The possibilities are endless and they will change what we mean with tourism.

I am not saying at all that we will be staying home (I hope the pandemic will be over!!!), just that from home I will be able to get a taste of the experiences that I will have (or that I had). Actually, when we will be travelling we will be using this possibility even more, through augmented reality, where the augmentation takes the form of sound speaking our language in spite of the fact that the origin of the sound was in a different tongue.

To me this Megatrend is the one that is most likely to become reality, and it is also one that will have most impact on feeling part of a single planet.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.