Can You Hear Me Mao?

Brian Hicks

Updated December 6, 2005

It’s hard to learn Chinese script. Reading and writing the language of Confucius, Sun Yat-Sen, and close to 2 billion Chinese worldwide is quite difficult for westerners raised with alphabetic writing systems.

Chinese newspapers even report the inadequate penmanship of native Chinese engineering students in filling out job applications. "We could make out the character for ‘male’ and that’s about all," said one human resources officer at a Chinese firm who had been pressed into taking dictations from applicants.

But with a cell phone, it seems quite easy to make Chinese characters appear.

Mobile phone text technology has been developed and honed since the dawn of the digital era, enabling any language that can be written to be entered into a numeric keypad with the result of streamlined, legible type. In China, cell phone users hit a key and are prompted to choose from a number of characters that they might intend to type.

Now let’s extend this. If Chinese can use cell phones to communicate text in Chinese, and Americans can communicate in, well, English, the next step from a standpoint of international commerce would be to facilitate English-Chinese communication with the same ease as the monolingual variety.

Now We’re Talking

As a student of linguistics, I was often presented with career options that I was not particularly keen on, but which have provided secure and lucrative lives for many others in my field. One of these is intelligence, where linguistic information is considered the very first front in any war. One must understand the enemy in order to gather actionable intelligence.

The other major career path available to linguists who do not want to put their skills to military use is computational linguistics. This field, though its original motive for innovation may not be battlefield or covert operations, also provides the intelligence community with significant advancements in tracking the flow of information throughout the world.

Between the business community’s desire to integrate the global marketplace, and the military industry’s desire to provide armed forces with the best possible intelligence, there is plenty of money in applied linguistics.

For China and the western world, this means that the chasm of language will soon be bridged.

TransClick is one company taking advantage of the information age and its potential to span the gap, by incorporating algorithms for deciphering speech with plain-old dictionary translation to achieve the most reliable and native-sounding equivalent from language to language.

Right now, TransClick’s technology is limited to SMS messaging, though the next step, vocalizing digital text, is not far off for most languages. Beginning in 2006, TransClick will offer its service to Verizon customers for French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese rendering of English original messages.

IBM is developing a program called MASTOR (Multilingual Automatic Speech to Speech Translator) specifically for English-Mandarin Chinese translation purposes.

If you thought the American zeal for Chinese business opportunities was high in recent years, watch the development of high-tech telecommunications interpreting remove one of the few remaining impediments to US-China commerce.

I’ll keep you updated on future developments as I think this is going to be a niche, but booming industry.

– Sam Hopkins

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