Technological Babel Fish

We spend so much time talking about the ability of technology and the Internet to bring knowledge to people who would otherwise not have access to education. However, even if we assume that individuals have access to the technology itself, if the information is presented in a language that they do not understand, then it is useless. The transition from ASCII to UNICODE, along with the implementation layers of the technology, represents a significant step toward truly universal access.

If individuals can create content in their own language, and the underlying code can translate that information into UNICODE, then an application at the other end can render the information in the preferred language of the end user, then the language barrier is largely removed. As speech recognition and text-to-speech software improves, their is the possibility that even those who do not have the ability to read and write could gain access to the same information. The need for a common “language of business” or “language of science” is eliminated, and people can focus their efforts on expanding and disseminating information and knowledge.

The readings this week triggered a memory from a few years ago, when my son was perhaps a year old. We had taught my son some basic words in American Sign Language. In fact, the first word that he communicated was the sign for “light,” when he was 6 months old. Perhaps a year later, when he could speak in full sentences, we still used a number of the signs with him. In line at the grocery store, the clerk started talking to him and gave him a sticker. I signed “thank you,” in an effort to prompt him. The clerk said, “Oh, is he deaf?” When I explained that he wasn’t, she said, “Oh, I thought maybe I had been wasting my time talking to him.” She meant nothing by the comment, but it struck me then, and again this week, that (a) she had assumed that the only reason for him to learn a language was because he could not use any other language, and (b) that she felt it was a waste of time talking to someone who couldn’t understand the language she was speaking.

This goes back to my thoughts on access. For most, language is a barrier that requires one party or the other to adapt. Without a common language, then communication is a waste of time and energy. The concept behind the development of UNICODE, however, defies that logic. It speaks to the idea that information should not be confined. UNICODE establishes a fundamental standard upon which the technology can be applied to break down the language barrier.

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