Tech and Science

Tech Finding Success in Reducing Language Barriers

Language barriers have long been one of the great dividing walls of civilization, with the concept making it into ancient stories like the Tower of Babel. Many thousands of years on, being unable to communicate with each other is still one of the biggest problems faced by global businesses, online gamers, vacationers, and just about anybody who has an interest in the world beyond their native borders.

Winter Olympics

Fortunately, there’s hope in sight. While we may never invent something similar to Star Trek’s Universal Translator, which can turn even alien grunts and whistles into American English, technology has at least begun to approach language as conquerable. During this year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, smartphone apps have found some success providing a meeting point between English and Mandarin Chinese.

These tools aren’t without their disadvantages. One of the major obstacles for even AI-driven language solutions are things like context, sarcasm, humor, and words with similar or situational meanings. Considering that the meaning of hand gestures can change from culture to culture, it’s easy to see how an errant word can cause confusion or even offense.


Translation issues can seem like a uniquely verbal thing. However, the written word such as in movies and TV can sometimes produce major translation errors. In entertainment, the Netflix shows Squid Game, Dark, Katla, and plenty of others all have reasonably accurate subtitles and acceptable English dubbing. Yet, even here, contextual differences can be a bugbear. Squid Game made the headlines several times for its subtitling misfires.

Casino Games

A good example of regionalisms comes from elsewhere in entertainment – casino gaming. Among online casinos, the word pokies may sound like a colloquialism for poker, but it actually refers to slots. While this is largely an Australian term, it’s not uncommon to find players at the top USA slot sites referring to games this way. Pachinko, a mechanical ball game popular in Japan, is also sometimes confused with slots, largely due to the fact that slot machines are sometimes known as pachislo.

A similar problem affects bingo, too, which is called housie, kinzo, and tombala depending on where the player is located. Just to complicate matters a little, some of these regional variants can have different rules to the version of the game that gained popularity in England.

Most operators of these games tend towards a more visual interface today, though, which helps reduce the potential for mistakes. Otherwise, it’s common to find slots with a variety of themes and mechanics as it continues to grow as a genre.

Mandarin Chinese

So, what’s the solution to the issues monolingual people have with understanding others? Inevitably, learning another language helps, but it offers no help on one-time visits. A new Chinese device called the iFLYTEK Jarvisen claims to offer real-time translation of words in less than 0.5s, with support for over 200 languages included in its databases. It’s pricey – at US$699 – but it does seem to function well, having been in use at the Winter Olympics.

The science of translation has been slow to evolve but, on an increasingly globalized planet, its rapid evolution is a growing necessity – especially because the dominance of English as the planet’s lingua franca seems to be fading. France has taken a number of steps to enforce French in EU meetings, while the industrial might of China means Mandarin is often key to modern trade.

As far as communication is concerned, the world is getting smaller. It’s up to science to determine whether language remains a barrier or a minor inconvenience.


About the author

Saman Iqbal

Saman is a law student. She enjoys writing about tech, politics and the world in general. She's an avid reader and writes fictional prose in her free time.

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