TED Conversations

Tobias Blech

IT System Developer,

This conversation is closed.

Language barrier free society

Dear TED’ies,
I would like your viewpoint on this:
Since many years I have this dream of a language barrier free society where kids stop learning words and start learning definitions. It may sound funny to our ears when someone tells you e.g. ‘I am angry (definition 2, strength 5)’ but it would be a clear cut statement. No more ‘I meant it different’ or ‘This is not what I wanted to say’. No more ministers that can give washy statements with no meaning.

If you try to use translating sites or programs you will see the hilarious results. They are only as good as they can extract the meaning from the context. If we humans fail in this, what can you expect from a program?
In texture this is even more helpful. You can program it in a way that the words are linked to a definition. In double meanings you can link to both definitions and all that can be shown in the tooltip. The dictionary can contain details of the usage of the definition like time period used commonly and rarely. Translation can be perfect in any language even if no such definition exists as new ones can be created or the original with explanation can be used.

But such a project would require thousands of helping hands. A usable dictionary already existing, that can be adjusted like Wikipedia would be helpful too, but copyright can become an issue.

Please your thoughts on this :-)

  • thumb
    Jan 24 2014: Wowza, that is an interesting thought! I must say however, there is something beautiful to me about statements not necessarily being clear cut. For example if I say in response to a compliment "thanks Mr, I really appreciate that" It may mean to me something much more (or less) than someone else who responds in exactly the same way.

    Now thats a pretty rubbish example, I am sure there are many better ones. But to rate a comment in strength that applies to everyone, I am not sure if I would like that, or if it is even possible, as of course, we all attribute the strength of words differently.

    A thought provoking topic indeed, I look forward to seeing others thoughts....
  • thumb
    Feb 17 2014: Tobias, one of the things you maybe asking is: "Is it possible to completely eliminate the possibility of being misintepreted or misunderstood"?
    • thumb
      Feb 22 2014: Ahhh, finally somebody who got my point. I had already given up hope.
      Yes, Rodrigo, I do believe it is possible. I might not have found the right way, but if we put ourselves together we will find it. What we understand of words is what we have experienced with them. But in any case, this experience can be explained and they are not so completely different, that we can't put them into a definition.
      I'm looking forward to your input :-)
  • thumb
    Jan 25 2014: Hi Tobias!
    I think it will work great when we are concerned with the communication part of the language. It will fail when we are concerned with literature and poetry.
    Definitions are necessary when we are keen to transfer an idea unchanged. However, we equally wish to transfer an idea loaded with its potential to change during reception.
    Meaning comes from context and context is perception based which is very individualized.
    If you consider mathematics as a language, it is barrier free.
    However, I am still thinking about your idea. :)
  • thumb
    Jan 24 2014: I (definition 4, strength 2) am (definition 7, strength 6) not (definition 2, strength 2) convinced (definition 1, strength 10) this (definition 4, strength 3) would (definition 0, strength 4) work (definition 3, strength 9).

    ;o) (definition 8, strength 2)

    Congratulations if you made it through, yet this is even the smallest impractical side effect of your idea to me.

    The main problem you'll run into is our human subjectivity, which makes it not even impossible to define but also to measure.

    This famous 'woman scale' by which some man rank in between 1 and 10 physical 'beauty', is not only derogatory but also as precise as reading tea leaves, as subjectivity is its scale of measure and therefore and by definition imprecise.

    Humans can not be calibrated to one another, so regardless how many definition and intensity levels you would create to any word, it fails at its exchange interface and final comparison.

    We don't even know if all humans possess the same abilities in terms of experiencing levels.

    The end of the rage scale of, lets say, the Dalai Lama, may be just a mild 0,159 on mine. How could we possible compare, leave alone proof that? I, for my part, am not going to provoke him ... ;o)

    But if he would tell me he was raged (definition 3, strength 9) I might completely change my view on Buddhism, because at that level I would be already busy to create as much havoc as I possibly could, whereas he might have just lifted one of his brows a bit.

    So as long as you don't have any valid and universal zero point on any emotion to calibrate at, definitions and rankings can not work at all.

    The difference between 'angry' and 'very angry' is blurry enough for me to get a picture, but I am aware of the fact, that thats the best it can be: Blurry!
    • thumb
      Jan 24 2014: Dear Lejan,
      so you want to say that comunicating a clear statement is so impossible that we shouldn't event try. That's a very sad viewpoint. Regarding to your joke above, I would be interested to know the 4 definitions of 'I', the 7 definitions of 'am' and the 2 definitons of 'not' and the 4 definitions of 'this'.
      And even then I would still think it would give a better translation than google translate.
      • thumb
        Jan 25 2014: Of course you can try to create as many languages you like to make them more easy for machines to translate. If beating Google translate in quality is what you aim for, thats fine, go for it and create one.

        What I was trying to make you understand is the general limitation you are going to face sooner or later with any of your language creations. And as long as this underlaying problem isn't solved, I for my part wouldn't be willing to learn another language which only advantage was then to be a bit more easy to learn by computers. Thats not the purpose of any language, at least in my view.

        And regarding my joke and your question for its definitions... this of course I leave to you to define, as you are the one wishing for more clarity ... :o)
        • thumb
          Jan 25 2014: Hello Lejan,
          I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m trying to refine it.
          My idea was it to give the possibility to make a clear statement even if the context is not known to the person(s) communicating to.
          That’s why I had ask for your thoughts (critical included).
      • thumb
        Jan 25 2014: My critical thoughts appeared sad to you and do may be the following:

        A clear statement without context is impossible!

        'Green' could be a statement, yet how many definitions do you need to make its meaning clear without any context? Is it a favorite color? A political tendency? A choice? An answer to an unknown question? A wish? Part of a dream?

        Refinement appears to me to small a task for a language to strip its words from any context by maintaining a clear meaning.

        I wish you all the best for your idea and that you can make it work, but my pessimism remains that you won't.
  • thumb
    Jan 28 2014: Quick addendum to my last, Tobias:

    With proper training young children might be able to learn a dozen languages or so. I suggest that in exploring far-reaching issues related to the Amazon Rain Forest, we could/should send teams of young Amazonia language speakers into the Amazon and gather the ancient wisdoms that have accrued for millennia there.

    Jung's Collective Unconscious is swiftly vanishing, as are our chances and hopes for survival. We had better get off our theorizing butts and start implementing quickly.
  • thumb
    Jan 28 2014: Hi, Tobias!

    Wade Davis, in his wonderful TED Talk, "Dreams from Endangered Cultures," points out that each language is a beneficial means of perceiving our world from a different perspective, not a barrier to comprehension. Since 1960, half the world's languages have vanished, at a rate of about one every two weeks. This "vanishing ethnosphere" may be as or more devastating than our vanishing biosphere, since the mental tool kit we have to repair environmental damage we have caused is losing a useful tool every two weeks.

    Babies are born with 40% more brain neurons, assembled in bushy nets, than we adults have. Most neuroscientists regard these as "extra" neurons, an unneeded evolutionary redundancy, since they wither away by age 4 or so. But evolution is very conservative, with very little energy wasted on "unneeded" systems. Example: geneticists once believed that 90% of DNA was mere "junk," since it is composed of "snippets" of complete DNA chains. Now we know that these snippets are crucial epigenetic "switches" that activate or de-activate genes throughout an organism's life.

    I submit that the reason 40% of the brain neurons we are born with wither away is because we do not use them. The one huge thing modern education systems lack is the intense memory training all students were subjected to for tens of thousands of years before books became common and cheap. Every time we recall something a "mirror neuron" lights up in our brain. Thus enhanced memory training creates more and more mirror neurons; and infants are far better equipped than we adults are to create mirror neurons.

    I submit that our ancestors' brains were not only physically different from ours - they were very probably superior!
  • Comment deleted

    • thumb
      Jan 25 2014: Dear Lilli,
      I completely disagree. I belief that languages are build by the use of words and what the receiving part thinks the meaning is independently ob being a man or a woman. I often use the word ‘woman’ as an example (my wife hates it, when I do that). To me it gives the impression that Germanic warriors went to England and asked the women there hiding their men: ‘Wo Mann’? Meaning ‘where is the man?’ and they thinking it to be the word for woman.
      This is just a theory of my own, but I have seen it with many examples within European languages knowing several of them to a more or less extent. Many examples like that you find in the Danish language where ‘barn’ (like born) means ‘child’, ‘gaeld’ (like German ‘Geld’ - money) means ‘debts’, ‘warmt’ (like warm) means hot, … and so on. I could give endless examples.
      Also about 80% of the population want to help (more or less in different countries) but few stand up to fight rather then accepting their condition. So why not make everything clear for all? I know that people in power rather keep the poor in an uneducated state so they can be easier controlled and they need the poor to be rich, but this is another subject.
      Change only happens when somebody stands up and challenges the system.
  • thumb
    Jan 24 2014: well, I think sometimes you can understand what the person is saying from knowing the situation, or knowing the person and how they speak. If you have any doubt, you can ask probing questions? But another way might be to notice there are different words that describe different levels of anger, for instance "I am irritated" is different from "I am enraged." But just practically, Tobias, it seems like people would forget what each definition of a word meant.

    Do you often experience miscommunications? How and where?
    • thumb
      Jan 24 2014: Dear Greg,
      I guess you are from an English speaking country. There are of course different words that describe those levels like e.g. Egypt has about 20 different words for saying 'good morning' depending on the time or Ireland has even much more words for the different types of rain (I think it was about 80). How would you be able to really understand each one of them without putting them in a certain order?
      To forget a definition, you might also forget the meaning of a word.
      I'm looking at it on the viewpoint of translation as I have been working as translator in the few languages that I know.
      • thumb
        Jan 25 2014: well, usually don't you understand them from what has gone before, or the situation the person is in now who is speaking? Or from knowing, or understanding, the speaker? If you're not sure, you can ask questions that clarify? Now, when you translate and you're not sure what they mean, can you ask them?
  • thumb
    Jan 24 2014: Great Topic. Will talk to you very soon!