What universal language

Do you still think that everybody will speak English? - Media Ecology Newsletter #16

While the percentage of English speakers online is getting smaller and smaller - to 25% in 2020, source Statista - as new users start browsing the internet, the idea that English could become a practical sort of universal language gets less likely. As the internet grows multilingual, machine translation also improves and gets more user-friendly. Is machine translation going to become the next universal language?

A language for the global élite?

There are of course some important limitations to English as a universal language. First, it provides a bit of an unfair advantage to those that speak English as a mother tongue. Second, it is less practical than it seems, given that data indicate that even in Europe and India, the number of people who speak English well is no more than 10%. Third, the use of Global English does not enrich the linguistic quality of international conversations, it simply makes them possible. But the same level of possibility is likely to be reached in some time by devices connected to automatic translation systems.

Imminent, Translated’s research center, just published a set of articles commenting on this. Here are just a few examples:

But the signifier is more communicable than the signified. Both in Global English and in machine translation, words can be used to exchange information, while in order to share meaning one still needs to deal with the complexity of cultural understanding.

While English risks to become a sort of language for the global élite, which could be challenged both in authoritarian contexts and in democratic and multilingual contexts, machine translation is not ready yet for being conceived as a tool usable by all people to express themselves in any other language. The “human in the loop” architecture - with a symbiotic relationship between artificial intelligence and professional human translators - will remain the solution that guarantees continuous improvement of translations.

Grants for researchers interested in language

Imminent is launching a call to find research ideas on these topics to which to entrust five grants of 20 thousand euros:

  1. Subject: Language economics Problem examples: How to define the ROI of translation, how and when translation is the right business option, the economic benefit of multilingualism. Alternative focus: Investment, planning, discovery, human resources management, supply chain management, international trade. Opportunity: Improve management and entrepreneurship in a multilingual environment.

  2. Subject: Linguistic data Problem examples: How to collect and organise multilingual data, data cleaning algorithms, data collection, rare language collection, unbiasing. Alternative focus: Data mining, knowledge management, data collection, web scraping, audio data, video data. Opportunity: Improve the knowledge base upon which machine learning is developed.

  3. Subject: Machine learning algorithms for translation Problem examples: How to improve the efficiency (quantity, quality, speed, adaptability, context awareness) of learning algorithms for machine translation. Alternative focus: Machine learning, artificial intelligence, algorithms. Opportunity: Support the creation of the next generation of machine technology.

  4. Subject: Human-computer interaction Problem examples: How to engage professional human translators in a symbiosis with machine translation, equitable incentives for human participation in the growth of machine translation, rational and emotional rewards, interface design, seamless human-computer interaction. Alternative focus: Design, engagement, empowerment, interface, interaction, gamification. Opportunity: Give value back to humans.

  5. Subject: The neuroscience of language Problem examples: How the brain works in language learning and translation. Alternative focus: Experiments, theories, applications, neuroscience, psychology, social psychology. Opportunity: How humans trust translations, how they open up to new languages, what is the difference between humans and machines in learning languages?

Language is in the screen

Mauro Carbone, a philosopher teaching in Lyon, shows how language is melting in a more complex set of tools for communication that are synthesized in the screen. One can read both words and images (or icons), one can digitally access the most international set of shows ever available to the world's population, one can live a new set of experiences with the screen, sometimes including the experience of redesigning the very platform used for communications. Carbone shares quite a bit of knowledge in a few paragraphs in his post: “Ten Things I Know About Screens After a Year of Pandemic”.

Translating research

In the world of science, translation has always been an important choice. It used to be Latin as an intercultural tool to express research, and it is now English the language of international science. It is a practical solution. But there is a better solution? In order to find an answer, one can profit with reading “Translating Research: Tensions and Challenges of Moving Between and Through Research Practices” a book chapter by Norm Friesen, Rose Ylimaki and Inés Dussel.


Europeans have to take multilingual solutions very seriously. They need to share much more information than they do at present. And moreover they need to improve their common democracy by improving the political debate at a European level. This is why it can be interesting to follow: eTranslation: Supporting multilingualism across countries, languages and fields.

Media Ecology. A definition, by Lance Strate

Media ecology is research on media intended as environments. If you want a summary, maybe you can take a look at: “Media ecology. A definition, by Lance Strate”, published on my blog (in Italian).

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