The Future of Language

Linguistics, the study of language and its structure, must continually redefine its boundaries during this time of increasingly complex communications. In its simplest form, language is a grouping of sounds or gestures that a community of members agree upon, without agreement, the sounds and gestures are meaningless. Let’s explore what the future holds for language in a digital age where that community becomes more diverse and complex, and what that means for businesses trying to stay ahead of the curve.


Emoji Take Over Thinking_Face_Emoji_large.png

When we speak to one another we often use our hands, facial expressions and other body language to enhance the words we are exchanging; this is what makes language multi-modal. Before the days of emojis, we could only use punctuation to enhance the true meaning behind written words, which isn’t fully indicative of our words’ true meaning. Instead of, “Thanks so much! See you later!” we can now say

Thanks Praying_Emoji.png See ya Peace_emoji.png Some of those more fluent in emojis can use them to replace entire words or sentences, “Thanks so much! See you later!” could actually just be Praying_Emoji.pngPeace_emoji.png

The use of emojis is so rampant that its users may soon surpass those who speak English in the coming years. This is of course implying that emojis themselves are their own language. Some companies are preparing and are even hiring individuals to be their emoji translators as the same emoji can mean very different things across different cultures.  The use of emojis is important to businesses because their use can be even more indicative of how their customers feel about them than words alone. This means businesses must adapt by scouring customer reviews, largely on social media, to understand how to improve. Emojis might just be the newest and easiest language to learn. If you are more interested in how emojis may actually become a structured, complex, and globally accepted language you can read more from this BBC article.

Talking to Artificial Intelligence

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It is quite likely that the last time you spoke to someone in customer service on an online platform, you were actually talking to a relatively sophisticated form of artificial intelligence. Jobs within customer service have seen an increasing risk for replacement by machines as AI allows organizations to effectively address the concerns and questions of thousands of customers without paying anyone. This is the age of the chatbot, the AI program for customer support, a hot topic for the last few years in Silicon Valley and now the rest of the world.

The volume and complexity of conversations we each have with AI is increasing and we may not even know it. Virtual assistants like Alexa learn from past conversations you may have had with them, leveraging their AI to tailor your experience. In the future, the conversations we have with these virtual assistants and chatbots will be much less rudimentary and could involve an array of emotion or thoughts expressed by the AI. What this will mean for the way we treat machines is unclear, but our relationship will undoubtedly become closer and far more uncertain. If you are interested in where we are today with conversational AI and how it works in more detail, read this TechCrunch article.

Breaking Language Barriers

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When entering a foreign country, it can be intimidating to hear a new language and this barrier may be frustrating. However, this may soon be obsolete. With new language processing technology, I am able to speak into a device and have my words immediately translated into a multitude of languages. The other person in the conversation with me can do the same and in a relatively seamless experience we can communicate where we once could not. Devices today are limited in speed and do not always understand different uses of slang and dialect that make language often difficult for anyone to interpret perfectly. Here’s an example of one of those technologies today.

For quite a few years there has been a multitude of apps that have tried to help its user learn and study a new language. Some of these apps feature experts in the language, allow one-on-one tutoring and even statistics to show you just how close you are to proficiency in a language. In the future, it is likely that translation apps will be largely replaced by wearables that will be entirely in real-time, meaning that the person hearing my English may not even hear a single English word, but rather my words immediately translated into their native tongue. Instead of noise canceling, these devices will be able to do noise isolation. This means that the conversation I am having with the person three feet in front of me will be the only thing I hear, even if I’m standing in a busy and noisy area.  This type of technology is already being built out, although it does need dramatic improvement for me to be able to listen to a conversation happening across the room. This will make future eavesdropping wildly powerful and will become an increasing threat to our privacy. These technologies also have enormous implications for multinational businesses who will be able to ease communication channels between their offices in different countries.

 

Please leave a comment or string of emojis to let me know your thoughts about the changing landscape of modern linguistics and the implications it may have on digital business.

 

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13 comments

  1. Really neat post! One of my close buddies is a BC linguistics major and he’s told me so much about the field, it’s incredibly interesting. A few weeks ago, he and a few other students from the department went over to Amazon’s offices in Cambridge to learn more about the language processing software that powers the Alexa AI. He said Amazon is offering very lucrative positions (at least by ling major standards) for linguists to further develop the software. Seems like a super interesting time to be in this field! Keep it 💯💯💯

    1. Sounds awesome, Amazon is right at the forefront of all language processing technology… as we expect they would be

  2. Great post! A lot of cool ideas here. I didn’t ever think of emojis as a form of communication on their own, but you’re right, they totally could be. I usually combine emojis with words, but I can see how that’s not necessary and could even be redundant. It’s also super interesting to think that emojis could be used to communicate across languages and that companies are hiring “emoji translators”. I always kick myself for not keeping up with my Spanish, but I wonder if the popularity of foreign language classes in grade school and college will slow down with these new apps and translators. I actually spoke recently with an investment manager who focuses on emerging markets companies and he was saying the language barrier is rarely an issue for him now because of these translators. They definitely make the world seem smaller!

    1. Pretty incredible how quickly this technology is coming. I have heard that in different cultures, the “poop” emoji can mean everything from an insult to something insinuating good luck. I guess we’ll soon all need cultural translators if emojis continue to become more popular.

  3. Great post 👍. I’m a fan and love it when people use emojis. In Israel we use them all the time when texting, and we often use the thumbs up without adding any words to it. I can definitely see many other emojis used to replace entire words or sentences. Though still, I wonder in what countries it is more prevelant to use emojis or to simply continue using punctuation. It’s interesting to see how Amazon Alexa is trying to leverage AI with language processing technologies, and I believe this can be very beneficial for business too.

  4. Awesome post! I’ve heard from a few of my friends who are linguists just how significant the shift caused by technology has impact how we communicate. As we rely more and more on phones to communicate with one another, it becomes more difficult to interpret just exactly what the other person means without actually hearing signals/tones that we pick up on when communicating in person or even on the phone. There was a humorous Kay and Peele skit that touched on this concept: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naleynXS7yo (note: NSFW!). I completely agree that one of the challenges now is to be able to keep up and be able to truly understand the meaning of the form of communication that becomes more mainstream, such as emojis and AI communication.

    1. hahah love that clip, and incredible how accurate it is. It is so difficult to deliver tone with a text messages. Apple’s update allows you to send things with a slam or with small font, maybe this is them trying to address this problem

  5. Really interesting post! I know when I studied abroad in Spain last summer and lived with a host family, it would have been nice to have language processing technology at times. I think it is still a useful skill to learn another language, but it would have saved a lot of time of going back and forth and pulling out dictionaries when we were really stumped. When we do text today, we always tend to send emojis back and forth, another example of this language making the world smaller. On a different note, I tend to become annoyed when I call in customer support and find myself not talking with real humans, so I will interested to see how AI becomes more advanced and if people really cannot tell if it’s a human or computer.

    1. I agree, I think learning a language is still very important, especially when wide spread adoption of this technology in the developed world may take years. Who knows how long for the developing

  6. Great post! Growing in the 90’s we started using acronyms like afk, brb, lol, etc. I never thought that emojis are the next development of similar language and language that speak across multiple cultures. It was fascinating to hear that companies are hiring people to translate the use of emojis in different cultures. Emojis have and will have a huge effect on big data.

    When I was in undergrad, I read a great article on a language that developed in parts of California based on the iphone’s frequently auto corrected words. Teens were speaking with one another using the words that were replaced by auto correct. It is crazy how much technology impacts language and communication.

  7. Saw Professor Kane’s “Daily Digest” Twitter post and discovered your blog post, and I’m so glad that I did! This has been a topic that’s fascinated me for awhile ever since I saw a video of ili wearable translator on my Facebook feed. Leveraging this new piece of technology will not only break barriers of miscommunication, frustration and misinterpretation, but also increase channels of knowledge and information sharing – think of all the museums you ever visited where you could only appreciate looking at the historical/artistic displays but could not understand what the tour guide was saying. Perhaps this could even lead to more intercultural/interracial marriages since couples who have a connection but have language barriers will be able to develop their relationships nevertheless.

    Your article also reminded me of the time I checked into Hong Kong’s Marco Polo hotel, in which to my surprise, each room offered a small device that carried wifi/Hong Kong travel guides/Google maps, etc. – if hotels, tour guides, airports and any other travel-related businesses offer this new translator tool, it could greatly increase their competitiveness in the marketplace.

    1. Those are all awesome points, thanks for sharing.
      Your point on interracial couples is something that I have never considered but wow… wouldn’t that be cool.

  8. Nice post. On the one hand, I do think the use of emojis are kind of silly (especially in the hands of someone who shouldn’t be using them….like my mother). But, they do often convey emotions or other subtleties of language that dont come through in text. I’m reminded of Egyptian Hieroglyphics or Chinese Characters.

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