Throughout history languages have separated human beings into exclusive groups, making communication difficult or impossible, exacerbating their cultural differences and contributing to wars and other kinds of violence.
The primary reason for this linguistic plague is the fact that languages are the reservoir, the transmitter, and the controller of cultures. People who speak different languages have problems because they think and behave in different ways.
It is easy to learn that water is agua (ah-gwah) in Spanish and mizu (mee-zoo) in Japanese. There is no cultural conflict, no friction involved. But when words that are pregnant with cultural content are involved, differences in cultural values and the control they have over the thinking and behavior of the people range from minor to enormous.
To fully explain the cultural content and role of the Spanish term macho (mah-choh) requires several hundred words. To fully explain the Japanese term kaizen (kigh-zen), or "continuous improvement," requires as many as a thousand words or more (there is a whole book on the subject).
When working as a trade journalist in Asia in the 1950s and 60s I learned that the cultures of China, Korea and Japan were bound up in hundreds of key words in each of the three languages, and that you simply could not understand their respective ways of thinking and behaving without intimate knowledge of these key words.
But technology, the new "God" of humanity, is on the verge of eliminating some of the linguistic barriers that separate human beings — not any time soon but certainly within the foreseeable future.
Most of the world is familiar with the "universal language" devices used by the fictional Capt. James T. Kirk and the intrepid crew of Star Trek to communicate with the various life-forms they encountered during their travels around the galaxies.
Now, reality is rapidly catching up with fiction. Japan's Council for Science and Technology Policy [CSTP] has challenged the country's automated speech translation researchers to improve the present technology in the next five years to the point that automated translators will in fact be a reality for Japanese who want to communicate with English and Mandarin speakers.
Prototypes of these translators have already been field-tested in China, and the word is that they worked perfectly as long as the conversations were simple. The process is based on storing hundreds of thousands of sentences and speech patterns into the devices that have exact equivalents in the target languages.
The goal of the CSTP is to have universal translators on the market for all of the world's major languages within ten years!
The impact that this will have on the world is so potentially profound and broad that over a period of a few generations it will surely change the nature of human cultures — something that gods have not been able to do since they were first created!
But this revolutionary change in the ability of human beings to communicate with each other across language barriers will inevitably increase the volume of conversations. Every word in each language that is pregnant with cultural nuances and uses will have to be explained in detail to make the communication complete.
If you think there is too much babble in today's world, consider what it will be like when this is multiplied many times over!
Editor's note: Boyé Lafayette De Mente (1928-2017) first came to Japan in 1949 as a member of the occupation forces. He held a degree in economics and Japanese from Tokyo's Sophia University, and a BFT from the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona.
He was best known as the author of a highly successful series of books on social and business customs in Japan, China, Korea and Mexico. As a journalist with the Japan Times, and later on as editor of 'The Importer Magazine,' he witnessed at close hand the rapid growth of Asia's 'tiger' economies. His guidelines to westerners wishing to do business in the new post-war Japan were widely recognized as ground-breaking.
I am indebted to Mr. De Mente for sending the above article to republish here in Japan Perspectives.