You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Tongues Twisted

While English is the most widely-spoken lingua franca in history, so-called common or working languages can be much less pervasive. Elamite, for example, was the submerged administrative language of the Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C.E. All official documents were written down in Elamite, but they were both composed and read out in Persian, the language of the illiterate ruling class. Then there is Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism. No longer used in everyday conversation, Pali is written in different scripts in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Burma, and sounds different when read aloud by Thai and Burmese speakers. The identity of the language is almost obscured by its profusion of forms.

Pali is a tantalizing case for Nicholas Ostler, because it suggests to him the possibility of a “virtual” language. A “virtual language” would not be read or spoken itself. It would allow the user to understand what is being written or said without learning the original language—in much the same way that “virtual reality” allows the user to have an experience of something without actually doing it. Pali is not “one language” in the concrete sense that it has one set of words, but those who know any of its forms can access exactly the same information. Yet on closer inspection this is not because it is a “virtual language.” It is because the differences between its forms are largely superficial. However the words are pronounced or written down, they mean the same thing. It is one language after all.

Despite this setback, Ostler has faith in a virtual system, which he claims will revolutionize global communications, and make foreign language learning a thing of the past. The traditional culture of Theravada Buddhism may not be the most receptive context for such radical change, but the internet serves as a low-cost, low-risk testing ground for new translation technologies. Google Translate, Babel Fish, and Microsoft’s Bing Translator all offer instant, automatic translation across a range of languages, and are constantly expanding their services. The results are often riddled with mistakes, sometimes amusingly. But Ostler believes that improvements in the technology will eventually “remove the requirement for a human intermediary to interpret or translate.” Printed texts and recorded speeches will be accessible to anyone with the right software as “virtual media.”

It is a bold vision of the future, and a particularly attractive one to Ostler, who is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. A technological revolution could save declining tongues from extinction. Those who now neglect their traditional regional language in favor of English would no longer need a lingua franca to access the same commercial and cultural opportunities. For Ostler, this is not just a desirable outcome. It also affirms “the social order created by mother tongues, where each community has its own language, as if by nature.” He does not admit the irony that this natural order could only be enforced by digital means, but the belief in its enduring integrity is perhaps enough. Such beliefs, he argues, can be a powerful force for change: “The survival of a lingua franca is always a matter of confidence and ideology as much as reasoned calculation.”

Before Ostler’s own ideology—entailing a fanciful technological determinism—takes hold of his argument, The Last Lingua Franca is wide-ranging and insightful. He is on firm ground when he uses historical examples to question the future of English as a global language. He shows repeatedly how governments abolish even well-established lingua francas “at the stroke of a pen” for ideological reasons. An especially neat case is the relegation of Persian both in India under British rule and in Central Asia after the Russian Revolution. For the British, this was as simple as changing the language of the courts, on the principle that “justice should be comprehensible to those being judged” and not just to the Persian-speaking elite. In the new Soviet republics of Central Asia, the lingua franca was edged out on the grounds of ethno-linguistic self-determination. The revolutionary government drew up the borders of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan according to the language spoken in each region, and raised literacy in these from less than 10 percent under Tsarist rule to almost 100 percent by 1959, at the expense of Persian.

Given how easily a language can be dethroned, Ostler does not share the optimism of David Crystal, David Graddol, or Robert McCrum, in thinking that, in one form or another, English will “find itself in the service of the world community for ever.” Historically considered, English has little chance of outlasting the economic and military dominance of Anglophone powers around the world. Emerging powers will remain loyal to their mother tongues and will be unlikely to “indulge the nostalgia of their Western suppliants by speaking to them in English,” as Ostler puts it, contemplating with special glee the decline of the language in which he is writing.

Yet one could be forgiven for entertaining the thought that massive media saturation—in radio, television, movies, pop music, and above all the internet—has brought English to a point of no return. Of course, this way of thinking has its own technological fallacy: it implies that English has achieved the linguistic apotheosis denied Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, or Persian, by virtue of faster electronic communications. The major insight of Ostler’s book is that technological innovations can have unexpected consequences. In the last ten years, the fastest growing languages online were Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and French, in that order. “The main story of growth in the Internet,” he reminds us, “is of linguistic diversity, not concentration.” And there is a startling parallel with Latin and the print revolution. At first, it looked as though printing would ensure Latin’s pre-eminence, making standardised textbooks widely available. In practice, the new technology mostly benefited the vernaculars, feeding a demand for novels and pamphlets among the expanding middle-classes.

These are convincing arguments, but they lead no further than a grim prognosis for English. Ostler’s grand theory that English will be the last lingua franca stands and falls with his vision of “virtual media.” One problem with such a vision is that there is no evidence that the technology on which it relies will ever be perfected. There is a lot more at stake in translation than the bare words of the text. To reach human standards, an automated translator would need to understand subtexts, cultural resonances, idioms, jokes, and puns, and find a way of conveying these to an audience. Since Ostler includes recorded speeches in his vision, it would also need to handle intonation and timing.

Most puzzling is that Ostler recognizes the intricacies of translation, and the problems that can arise from even the most minor differences in interpretation. He recounts the memorable misunderstanding among delegates of the European Union in 1990 when presented with a report on the success of a long-running initiative. Those who read the report in the original French had thought it generally supportive of the committee’s work, while those who read the English translation believed the project had mostly been a failure. The divergence in attitudes stemmed from the word insuffisant, which was rendered as “inadequate in the English translation, rather than the more literal, and forgiving, “insufficient.” Ostler’s analysis of the words’ differing connotations is one of the most engaging passages in his book; his account of lingua francas is more immediate when the people who use them have a decisive part to play. “Human reason, and even more human rhetoric, is inclined to be inscrutable,” he writes, conceding that this “sets some limits on the value of machines as all-purpose interpreters.”

Instead of probing these limits—which would surely give Ostler’s vision greater definition—he routinely effaces them. Up to this point, the book’s appeal lies in the remarkable nature of its case studies, which are discussed with scientific disinterest. While not woven together by any strong authorial voice, each chapter is split into sections, which sometimes read like units in a textbook. It is especially surprising, then, when Ostler begins to make defensive, even personal protests to the reader. He admits that the future he envisages “may seem a hopelessly utopian dream,” but he makes no attempt to rationalize such doubts. Elsewhere he resorts to sheer bravado, insisting that “the future is easy to predict, and not really debatable.” The book’s triumphal final sentence strikes a fatuous and false note: “Thereafter everyone will speak and write in whatever language they choose, and the world will understand.”

There are limits to what Ostler calls “the world’s new linguistic order,” and even a bludgeoning prose style cannot disguise them. “Virtual media,” like the notion of Pali as a “virtual language,” is not all that it seems. Although he argues as if high-quality instant translation will enable a linguistic revolution, Ostler’s vision is really founded on something more closely resembling the deeply flawed technology that already exists. The often unreliable, awkward translations currently produced by machines would be used as a basis to “access and penetrate texts”—the word ‘understand’ is wholly resisted—which would otherwise be “totally closed books.” Ostler defends this “partial understanding” against anyone who might want or need to understand the text in a more nuanced way. They are rather oddly accused of “naïveté on the human side,” as though the machines had their own perfectly reasonable opinions on the niceties of semantic theory.

This last point is only an authorial flight of fancy, a utopian over-indulgence. But there is a chance that machine translation will come to be used in the manner that Ostler describes, and he appears unconcerned by the huge cultural losses that such a development would bring. Quite the opposite: he claims that casual users are already taking advantage of the new technology, and that “the actual future that awaits it… is not an inglorious one.” Even if this is true, the needs of casual online users may be more or less satisfied by a technology that could make costly mistakes in business or diplomacy. Such technology would be of little use in face-to-face meetings, which count for a lot in both of these fields, and would be still less useful for informal, personal conversations.

Ostler touches on the role of foreign language teaching only briefly in the last section of the book. He is interested in the work of the British Council, the Alliance Française, and more recently China’s Confucius Institutes in spreading their national languages across the world. He does not mention that their Danish, Swedish, Czech, Estonian, Finnish, and Catalan equivalents could not possibly have been established with the same goal. It is worth learning these languages as a way of engaging with their speakers, as well as their literature and culture. Ostler quotes twice from Fitzgerald’s famous translations of Omar Khayyám, without mentioning that these translations were the product of the serious study of Persian literature. He does not say whether the poetry of Wordsworth and Kipling, which he quotes in his epigraphs, could be translated by machines. If machine translation put an end to foreign language learning, would there be anyone left with the skills to attempt a translation of them?

The Last Lingua Franca is subtitled English Until the Return of Babel. This is intended, no doubt, to summon the image of a tower being rebuilt, as a monument to human ingenuity and technological achievement. The ideal of effortless communication is understandable, but it is mythical. In reality, it means irritating misunderstandings, an impoverished cultural exchange, and technological dependency. This situation evokes the Babel story too, the disastrous confusion of a world in which there is no shared language. Such confusion should be avoided, even if the current dominance of one language seems overwhelming or unfair. The most interesting and responsible question now is what kind of lingua franca, or more likely lingua francas, will replace it.

Laura Marsh is a writer living in London.