Four Universal Language Predictions from Hollywood

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Written by Sarah Stokes and Jon Accarrino, Guest Contributors

From highway signs to emergency announcements, information needs to be communicated to both city inhabitants as well as visiting populations. So what language(s) should city planners consider making part of their city’s future? Television and movie scriptwriters spend a lot of time brainstorming about this exact subject. Let’s look at four films and their predictions for the future of language.

ELYSIUM (2013): A Universal Language for Business, Politics, Computer Systems, and Aviation

In addition to being a thrilling sci-fi action movie starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, the film Elysium explores several themes relevant to city planners including healthcare, immigration, overpopulation, and language. According to the film, in the year 2154, the upper class will migrate away from a devastated Earth to a luxury space habitat called Elysium where many of the wealthy speak French. The lower class lives on an overpopulated, ravaged Earth where Spanish is the primary language. However, both classes speak English. Residents on both Earth and Elysium use English when discussing business and politics. Additionally, all computer screens and flight control information is displayed in English. Essentially, English is the universal language of this society.

Seeing a future where English is the standard language for computer systems and flight is not entirely unthinkable. The airline industry currently uses English as a “universal language.” In 2008, the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) decreed that all Air Traffic Controllers and Flight Crew Members, engaged in or in contact with international flights, must be proficient in the English language.

Also, almost all computer programming is currently done in English. Over one-third of all programming languages were developed in a country with English as the primary language. In addition, many computer languages that were developed in non-English-speaking countries use English as their base to appeal to an international audience.

STARGATE (1994-2011): Doesn’t everyone already speak English?

In the popular sci-fi film and television franchise, Stargate (Stargate, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Stargate Universe), everyone knows how to speak English, including human cultures and aliens. According to Stargate, English is truly a “universal language.” It is a silly and unexplained assumption by the show’s creators, but it actually raises a fair point.

Can we expect everyone to know how to speak English? It many seem strange to ask that question, but how often have you seen this happen or assumed so yourself? It is not uncommon for an English-speaking traveler to attempt to speak English to someone in a foreign country and get a response. Even though there are more native Mandarin Chinese and Spanish speakers globally, English is the most common second language spoken by people around the world. It is considered the easiest to learn and the most practical for business. Right now, over one billion people are currently learning English in a variety of counties around the world.

BLADE RUNNER (1982): Mixed Languages and Cityspeak

Ridley Scott’s cinematic film, Blade Runner, takes place in a futuristic Los Angeles where the streets have become a giant overcrowded slum. English is the main language used by the wealthy, business owners, police officials, and even robot workers known as replicants. However, the language spoken by the average person on the street is a hybrid language called “Cityspeak,” a mixture of Spanish, French, Chinese, German, Hungarian, and Japanese.

It is not inconceivable that an overcrowded society, with people from many different cultures, might organically create their own hybrid or mixed language. Jamaican Patois, Cappadocian Greek, and Kormakiti Arabic are just a few examples of mixed languages created from similar circumstances.

How many words and phrases in different languages do you know, just from pop culture? Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto? Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir? Viva Las Vegas?

STAR TREK (1966-Present): Universal Translator

What if learning languages was no longer necessary and technology was able to automatically translate everything for us? In sci-fi television and film franchise, Star Trek, a technology called the Universal Translator is used to allow both organic and non-organic species to communicate seamlessly with each other.

Language translation technology was true science fiction in the 1960s when the show debuted, but today, your average smartphone or tablet can provide sophisticated speech or image translation services. An iPad app called TableTop Translator enables two people sitting across from each other to have their conversation translated. And the Word Lens app can even translate images from a smartphone camera. Just take a picture of a sign or an item from a restaurant menu and Word Lens can translate the text for you in a matter of moments.

Both of these apps have a delay and make real-time conversations awkward. But a real-time translation solution might be right around the corner. Microsoft is currently demoing real-time voice translation services using their popular video conferencing application Skype. Once perfected, the technology will enable a new era in global communication.

And as wearable technology evolves, it is only a matter of time until translation services are integrated into everything from hearing aids to Google Glass-like eyewear that can display subtitles from conversations in real-time.

Technology aside, there is obviously a need for a universal language. So why don’t we already have one? It is not for lack of trying. In 1887, Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof created an international auxiliary language called Esperanto that would be easy-to-learn and politically neutral.

Esperanto started to gain in popularity in parts of Europe, but was aggressively halted during World War II. In Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, he calls Esperanto an international conspiracy language, and as a result Esperantists were one of the groups actively killed during the Holocaust. There have been coordinated efforts to revive Esperanto, however despite those efforts, few have enthusiastically embraced the language.

Although international organizations and businesses, including the European Union and the airline industry, have made the English language their standard, would English make sense for everyday global citizens?

Will a universal language eventually exist? Having a “universal language” would certainly be helpful for all city planners. Imagine if everyone could read the same signs, follow transit information or communicate in emergency situations? Will it be English? Will technology inspired by the Star Trek Universal Translator eventually bridge our global communication gap? Tweet about it at #BigScreen.

Photo: woodleywonderworks cc), with alterations.